Not long after I get to Tbilisi, I'm driving with a group of Georgians when a young policeman flags down our car. OK, this is it, I figure: I'm finally going to see the corruption for which Georgia is famed. I get out my notebook to record the details of the shakedown we're about to suffer. The driver pulls over and the officer walks up to our car. But when he sees that it's full, he waves us on. It turns out he was just looking for a ride.
I ask Sopho, a Georgian freelance journalist who's with me in the back seat, if police often stop cars for bribes. "No, not anymore," she says. "Not since the Rose Revolution."
In the last Transparency International rankings of corruption perception, Georgia was the 65th most corrupt country in the world, still more corrupt than Mexico and Serbia. But just two years before it was 8th on the list. There are plenty of forms of corruption, some of which still plague Georgia. But to have virtually eliminated highway bribery in less than four years is remarkable.
Decreasing corruption is just one of the impressive achievements of the new government that took power in the Rose Revolution. The Georgian government led by President Mikhail Saakashvili has worked aggressively to transform the country's economic culture, making it easier to open a business and loosening labor laws. The reforms have not escaped international attention, as the World Bank named Georgia the top reforming country in the world last year.
These changes are being carried out partly on their own merit. But the fear of Russia and desire for protection from the West inspires Georgia to push onward, even when the changes may prove painful. "The Americans have a very good approach: they support the strong one. They help you if you are capable, if you are doing something, if you are motivated. And this is fair," says Alexander Rondeli, a prominent Georgian political analysts and an occasional advisor to the government. He has picked me up in his red Nissan SUV and driven me to a French-Georgian bistro. I protest that I have dinner plans later, but he insists that I eat anyway, and orders me some fried cheese and a tradition bean dish called lobio. "I have to do this," he says. "We Georgians are captive to our hospitality."
He explains that Georgians fear that if they don't show themselves as worthy of American and Western help, the West will abandon them to fall again into Russia's sphere of influence. "One friend told me:
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.