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Misha And His Team

By Gela Vasadze
Georgia Online, 08 August '12
Translated by Tim Blauvelt

from a session of government to personally deliver the news to small businessmen that they would be freed from taxes, to no small degree solidified the belief among the population that such a thing was possible.

But economics has its rules. So long as the tax system was filling the vacuum that remained from Shevardnadze, the budget grew like gangbusters, and expenditures in the social sphere could increase rather significantly, all the more so since the starting level was close to zero.

But as soon as the effect of administrative resources wore off and the state began privatization, not so much to fulfill the budget as to create new sources of tax revenue, our society began to grumble.

Kakha Bendukidze, the father of Georgian economic reforms, could properly be considered the poster child for privatization in Georgia. His words “We’ll sell everything escept our morals” provoked particular annoyance in society. Certain individuals expressed their protest against privatization in a particularly “original” way: supporters of Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia [the widow of Zviad Gamsakhurdia] came every day to the Economics Ministry as if to work to chant “Bendukidze is a pig! Bendukidze is a pig!" Just as if going to work, from ten to six with a break for lunch.

The explanation of why Bendukidze is a pig was very simple: he was selling off the Motherland. The fact that the Motherland was non-functioning factories, empty fields, abandoned farms, smashed electrical stations and so forth was of little interest to anybody. Of course only a very few resorted to such marginal methods, but if you were to ask, something like nine out of ten residents of Georgia would express confusion or even dissatisfaction that everything in Georgia was for sale. The thought occurred to only a very few people that Georgia was lucky that state property was being sold not at voucher auctions (an ugly phenomenon that is known to be infectious), but rather for real money.

Occasionally the emergence of dissatisfaction reached anecdotal proportions. For example, the majority of Tbilisi residents were unhappy with the construction of high-rise buildings of doubtful artistic value in the Sololaki district of old Tbilisi. But as soon as the authorities demolished one of these, which incidentally was erected illegally, public opinion turned sharply against this approach, considering the government’s decision to be unjust. The situation could have been “settled” if all such buildings had been demolished, but thankfully the authorities didn’t have the brains to do that. In general, the real complaint against the government lay precisely in the sphere of justness.

In essence, the whole question of change in mentality came down to one simple thing: forcing citizens to obey the law. But it turned out to be not so simple. The reforms, as we’ve already mentioned, were carried out by people who also grew up in the Soviet reality, and this naturally left a specific imprint on them.

After all, laws are supposed to be obeyed by all citizens, regardless of rank or position. The constant personnel merry-go-rounds and even arrests were not enough to force bureaucrats to become completely honest, and systemic changes lagged behind the course of events.

More generally, the issue of bureaucrats is a special question. During the “old regime," the salary of a deputy mayor of a large city was about 80 US dollars a month, although nobody was surprised that bureaucrats in the Shevardnadze and Abashidze epoch drove the latest model SUVs and built mansions that many EU citizens with exponentially higher salaries would have been envious of. As soon as the new team came to power, George Soros made a grand gesture. The Open Society Foundation allotted funds for additional salaries for state employees in order to root out corruption in governmental administrative bodies.

As a result, in 2005 bureaucrats’ salaries approached the minimum subsistence level. For comparison, that same deputy mayor started to receive $500 per month. Not a huge sum: enough to keep from starving, but not a salary to write home about. About sixty percent of salaries were financed from the state budget, and the rest from the resources of George Soros. It was from this that the legend arose that Georgian officials’ salaries were being paid by the Americans, a legend in which the majority of citizens of the Russian Federation are absolutely convinced.

But let us return to the painful reforms. The issue of street traders was one of the main problems of the first years after the revolution. Under Shevardnadze cities turned into enormous bazaars. People subsisted, and survived as well as they could, through selling right on the street, naturally in unsanitary conditions. This of course looked very unaesthetic. Therefore the decision was taken to do away with street trading. In essence, the decision was more or less correct and supported by the majority of the population.

The majority, that is, except for the street traders themselves, who had no desire to give up their accustomed spots and move into the proper markets, where nobody was particularly happy to see them. If the authorities had decided to create better conditions for street trade, success would have been guaranteed. But they chose a different path and received the opposite result.

The bitter conflict continued until November 2007, after which the authorities backed down. This could be called “dizziness from success," when it seemed that high popularity ratings could cover over any unpopular decision. But even the most ardent proponents of the street trading ban must have experienced mixed emotions when seeing the faces of these people, whose lives were far from easy, on the nightly news. The attitude towards the government began to change from enthusiasm to indifference, and even to irritation.

The main problem of the Georgian authorities of that time was one of communication. There were surprisingly few people among them who were able to speak with the populace in anything other than the language of slogans and PR adverts. The authorities undercut the positive effect of many of their initiatives because of their preference for strong-armed solutions to urgent problems.

Most of the dissatisfaction, in essence, could have been avoided if painstaking efforts had been made to reach out to the population to explain things. A clear example of this is the fixing up of apartment building yards. It is something of an axiom that people prefer to live in clean, well maintained yards with playgrounds for children and comfortable benches to sit on.

But the problem was that it was impossible to fix up yards that had been filled up with illegally erected garages and storage sheds, built during the hard times for storing firewood. It should have been the simplest thing to explain to the population that these would be removed and that cars could be parked in well-lit lots in those same yards. It would have been simple, but it wasn’t done. Garages and sheds were torn down as illegal constructs to the outcry of the population, and the yards were fixed up only several months later. So unsurprisingly, most people never made the connection between the two events, and the sense of insult remained.

He who does nothing makes no mistakes, as they say. But sometimes the mistakes were utterly stupid. For example, it’s impossible to understand why they had to take away from distinguished citizens the apartments that had been given to them by Tbilisi City Hall, only because these gifts at the time it had contravened the law. There was no corruption involved, and those who received the apartments were not at all rich, even though they were well- known. All of Georgia empathized with a famous actress, raising a child on her own, who was turned out onto the street.

Even more stupid was the demolition of a church that was built, albeit illegally, on a mountain in the outskirts of Batumi. This was later blamed on a mid-level bureaucrat who could never have taken such a step without orders from above. As a result, the community was so aggravated that the church was rebuilt at the government’s expense. These are only a few examples that shed light on the causes of November 2007.

Of course the residents of Georgia were not prepared for reforms, and of course in their imaginations the supporters of the reforms drew an idealized picture and the opponents an apocalyptic one. Today one can discuss endlessly how and where the authorities made mistakes.

But today, thinking about whether things could have been better, one involuntarily reaches the conclusion that they could not have been. The causes of this are what I tried to explain at the start: all the residents of Georgia were nurtured in the Soviet system, including those who carried out the reforms. Changing mentality is a long and painful process that takes place over a period of time after the creation of particular conditions. In November 2007 society was taught a painful but unavoidable lesson. But more about that next time.

Any credit has to be paid back sooner or later. This is even more the case with credit of trust, and in the case of Mikheil Saakashvili’s team that debt was enormous. The most important thing that the revolution gave the Georgian people was hope, but different people had different hopes and expectations.

Fall 2007 revealed the government’s main problem: communication. In conducting the proper reforms, the authorities did not have the resources to convey the meaning of these reforms to the population in a precise and succinct way. Besides the president himself, only one person, Giga Bokeria, could elucidate what was taking place. Perhaps this might have been sufficient for economic reforms, but as reforms in mentality were also taking place, and being initiated from above to boot, it was absolutely vital that any middle-ranking bureaucrat be able to explain to the population on the ground the essence and purpose of the changes, and not lose genuine connection with the electorate. It was this that was lacking.

This gap might have been filled by grassroots level party work, but the powerful ideological apparatus of the party had been transformed entirely into a machine for carrying out elections. I recall well Saakashvili’s words as National Movement Chairman spoken at a party conference in Batumi: “The main task of the party is to both promote government policy and to oversee the activities of officials and their connection with the masses."

It was precisely in this task where the party of power failed. There were subjective (personnel) and objective reasons for this. Lack of financing led the majority of people involved in party work to dream only about moving into the executive branch, where the salaries were higher. As a result, even though the party had a sufficient material and technical base, it found itself in the background of political life. Nearly everybody who was following current events at that time drew the conclusion that the authorities had no mechanism with which to communicate with the masses.

If we look at the mass media, even taking into account the relativity of viewer ratings, a situation in which an opposition TV channel is in the first place with three times higher ratings than its closest competitor can hardly be considered normal. The TV station Imedi was a powerful informational weapon, able to smash the hopes of Georgian society to the ground and leave no stone standing.

But all the same, such a turn of events could have been avoided, if not for the tragedy of form. The population of the country would have understood and accepted fully well the demolition of a house on Tabukashvili Street, the eviction of tenants from the Samshoblo editorial building, and much more besides that was correctly considered a liability for

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