Five principles for world's reformers

By Mikheil Saakashvili

Financial Times

Published: May 26 2005

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the area that was once the Soviet Union. It is clear that, after the revolutionary changes in Tbilisi, Kiev and Bishkek, the old status quo is gone forever. Kleptocratic ways of governing are obsolete, autocratic rulers cannot ignore popular moods and people are uniting to demand freedom.

Thursday marks Georgia's Independence Day and 18 months after the Rose Revolution we have learnt some important truths: first and foremost that it is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into a well-performing democracy.

We inherited a dysfunctional state administration. An immediate donation of several million dollars by the United Nations Development Programme made a critical difference. We dramatically increased the salaries of 200 tax collectors and a select group of anti-corruption investigators, leading to significantly increased tax collection.

We quadrupled our budget and now pay every civil servant a decent salary. Having despaired after many months of attempts at reforming our thoroughly corrupt police, we decided to fire all 15,000 officers and recruit an entirely new force. We equipped the reformed service like any other modern European police force and increased salaries 10-fold. This major surgery resulted in a quick and complete recovery of Georgia's law enforcement capacity. The new police force has a 95 per cent approval rating and Georgians now see the police as protectors rather than predators.

We undertook significant reforms in other sectors. We are currently in the process of abolishing most licence and permit requirements to empower investors and entrepreneurs. We defied International Monetary Fund advice and dramatically lowered our tax rates. But we achieved our goal: overall tax revenues increased.

My fellow reformers and I learnt from our own mistakes when we tried to reform the failed government of Eduard Shevardnadze from the inside. We also learnt from the mistakes and successes of eastern European reformers - from Poland to Estonia to Serbia.

Economic "shock therapy" works and is indeed the only way to move from a criminal economy to a market economy. Dwelling on the injustices of Soviet brutality is not a substitute for membership of Nato and the European Union. Tragically, the greatest threat to a young democracy comes not from external enemies but from the crime and corruption that flourished under decades of communist occupation.

There are core principles that all reformers - present and aspiring - should heed. First, the window of opportunity for democratic reform is very narrow and will not stay open indefinitely. Every reformer should know that the race for the future is won by the swift. Something that was easily possible immediately after a revolution becomes much harder after just a few months, even with a legislative majority and broad popular support.

Second, reform has to be comprehensive. One cannot reform parts of the state structure and retain the old order in others. Reforming the economy without addressing law enforcement will result in failure. Reform must be a continuous process uninterrupted by pauses. This approach needs a vision of a country's destination and a systematic plan to get there.

Third, the people are the best ally of the reformers. In principle, there should not be such a thing as unpopular reform; rather there are reformers who often fail to explain their programmes and to link them to the long-term public interest. Reformers will have little chance to succeed if they alienate key constituencies and lose popular support. Public debate over reforms is thus central to their success. The more open a society and the more transparent a government, the greater the chances for ultimate success.

Fourth, reformers must build free institutions that will endure long beyond their term in office. A free democratic state is about far more than elections or personalities. It is about building the institutional foundations that preserve individual and economic freedom, sustain the rule of law and protect all elements of society.

Finally, reformers should not count on keeping society permanently happy. They should accept that, sooner or later, their constituents will be disappointed with them and they will be voted out of office. Reformers must seek long-term change, not short-term political gratification. It is not the eternal gratitude of society to which we aspire but lasting results. The ultimate prize for every reformer is the transformed society they leave behind.

The writer is president of Georgia