The failed "mental revolution": Georgia, crime and criminal justice

Crime has been near the top of Georgia's political agenda for a decade. But successive governments have still to address fundamental questions of legitimacy and trust.

Alexander Kupatadze Gavin Slade
1 October 2014

Two years after a change of government in Georgia, the issue of criminality is back in the political spotlight. The country's main opposition party, the United National Movement, claims that situation is getting worse. Crime is rising, the streets are becoming less safe for Georgians to walk in, and the police are moving from a service ethic to the bad old habits of shakedowns and bribery.

The government, led by former interior minister Irakli Garibashvili, disputes this portrait. Yet it recently set up "special police checks" in Tbilisi to address current problems. Some blame a mass amnesty of thousands of prisoners in 2013 for rising crime, though without clear data on recidivism it is difficult to know the true impact of this.

The situation in prisons is also worrying. Disturbances in 2014 reportedly have been resolved only with the help of Georgian mafia figures - so-called "thieves-in-law". Conversations between prisoners have been leaked suggesting that the criminal subculture represented by these figures is again beginning to spread through the prison system.

It is also alleged that several thieves-in-law have transited through Georgian territory without any problems, even being met and accompanied by individuals affiliated with government structures. This allegation is difficult to verify, but at the very least it is known that these criminals were formally extradited or deported from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to Georgia but, once they cross into Georgian territory, their trace gets lost.

All this seems distinct cause for concern. The biggest achievement of the former government, led by the United National Movement and Mikheil Saakashvili, was the drastic reduction in criminality in the country and the successful fight with organised crime. The results were dramatic: by 2010, a person in Georgia was half as likely to be a victim of burglary, four times less likely to be robbed and ten times less likely to be assaulted than in law-abiding Germany.

How was this remarkable, indeed almost unbelievable, crime decline made possible? Certainly, it was not through ameliorative social policy. There was little increase in social welfare, reductions in unemployment or inequality, or the embedding of a civic education, despite some attempts at this. The Georgian crime decline resulted instead from pacifying society by the reimposition of a Leviathan. In 2005, the average sentence handed down in criminal courts was one year in prison; by 2008 it was five years. The prison population bulged, growing 300% between 2003-10. Georgia was in the top five incarcerators per capita in the world by 2012. A system of hefty fines was enacted and enforced. Violence between Georgian citizens was reduced, but instead flowed top-down from the state to society. Extra-judicial killings by police increased, systematic violence and torture occurred in prisons.

Yet crime did decline. Walking on the street at night became relaxed. Drivers refused to drink when over at a friend’s house for dinner. Taxi-drivers insisted passengers wear seatbelts. In short, a positive legal consciousness emerged out of legal nihilism; people obeyed the law. This was the very essence of the much-vaunted "mental revolution"  - Georgian people had changed. However, the increases in crime since Saakashvili’s time disproves this notion. Normative orientations to law and order have not in fact significantly changed. Why not?

Reform and perception

Tom Tyler, in his classic study Why People Obey the Law, argues that self-interest (fear or rewards) is a narrow basis for the rule of law. Brute coercive power may achieve obedience but will not sustain it. Only a sense of fairness, trust and legitimacy can do that by nurturing feelings of obligation. When outcomes are fair, and the procedures that lead to those outcomes transparent and just, people will follow rules, cooperate with police, pay fines, and accept punishment. Procedural justice - the experience directly or vicariously of transparency, fairness, neutrality and respect in dealings with criminal justice - is vital for any rule-following behaviour. Tyler’s thesis has stood up to more tests, in many contexts around the world, than most in socio-legal scholarship.

Now Georgia has become a country-sized test of this hypothesis and recent increases in criminality appear to be supporting it. Saakashvili’s government bequeathed an efficient and repressive system, but one that completely lacked procedural fairness and therefore legitimacy.

Surveys on judicial independence in Georgia, conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centres in 2012 and 2014, found that trust in the institutions of criminal justice - the courts, judges and prosecutors - has remained minimal. These three institutions score lowest on overall levels of trust behind a multitude of other political and social institutions; around 35% of respondents partially or fully trust prosecutors for example, compared to 76% for teachers. Moreover, procedurally Georgians have lacked justice at all levels. Processes such as plea-bargaining are not seen as delivering fairness; 67% of Georgians believed it is simply a way of transferring money to the state in 2012, though this declined to 54% in 2014. Outcomes are unfair: around 55% believed innocent people are imprisoned "often" or "occasionally", with little change between 2012 and 2014.

To be fair, during the early years of Saakashvili’s reforms it was clearly signaled to society that high-ranking officials, the former class of "untouchables," would also be prosecuted. Yet this process was itself opaque, and undermined by a growing perception of unpunished elite corruption among the new political class.

It is also fair to note that in general attitudes to the police massively improved under Saakashvili. Georgia’s police were seen as an example in the region, inspiring other post-Soviet countries such as Kyrgyzstan. But even the celebrated Patrol Police, who enjoy high levels of confidence among Georgians, are undermined by the fact that in the same breath Georgians say they are reluctant to report crime to the police. Confidence in the police suggests people think they are effective, but cooperation requires more than this. It requires legitimacy: deference to authority based on a shared belief in the justifiability of the values and actions of the police. Furthermore, even the high levels of confidence in the police are being reversed since the change of government in 2012. Georgia’s police has lost much of its model image, in part due to efforts of the current authorities to downplay some of the positive outcomes of previous reforms.

Policy and trust

The upshot of all this is that Georgians have been left without any sense of obligation to the legal system. With repression relaxed, Georgians may well go back to disregarding the force of law. But a kneejerk political reaction to this would be unwise. Georgian politics has been unnecessarily preoccupied with crime since at least 2004. In fact, while Georgia certainly had high victimisation rates in the chaos of the 1990s, and continues to mythologise a colourful criminal subculture, it has never been (by comparative standards) a particularly high-crime society. It is still a relatively agricultural and rural place, maintaining strong social institutions - the family, organised communities and religiosity - which are a natural check on crime. Admittedly, the country also hosts a range of other factors that pull in the opposite direction - high unemployment, entrenched poverty, and some of the worst inequality scores of the whole post-Soviet region. But the evidence suggests that in assessing Georgia’s crime problem, perspective is needed.

For example, Georgia had by 1989 some of the lowest per capita registered crime rates in the Soviet Union (327 crimes per 100,000 people, against 1,112 crimes in Latvia, for example; only Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan were lower). There was certainly a jump in crime in the 1990s and Georgia had higher victimisation rates on a range of crimes than many countries in the "transition" region by 1995. But at the time, the situation was an exceptional one of post-war state collapse. Even after such trauma, by 2001 Georgia’s homicide rate was many times lower than that of other countries in the region (3.9 per 100,000, against 28.8 in Russia and 12.2 in Ukraine, for example). Finally, the results of Saakashvili’s war on crime mean that any subsequent increase in criminality is taking place from a very low starting-point.

Reimposing hardline policies to address crime will do nothing to deal with the underlying issues - they can only ever be a temporary measure. The current Georgian government needs to continue to address the lack of legitimacy in the institutions that provide social order in the country. The 2013 mass amnesty of prisoners, who had often been given extremely harsh custodial sentences for very minor crimes, was an immediate attempt to establish trust in criminal justice. Yet, this must be backed by sustained, deeper reform focusing on the judiciary.

So far, the survey data on trust in the justice system from 2014 shows only a small improvement on data from 2012. Only when Georgians feel an obligation to obey authority out of a sense of its fairness, and follow the law out of shared beliefs in the law’s justifiability, will the country be in a position to produce a politics free of the fear of "criminal revolutions."

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