Updated on 05/23/12 to include additional official comment.
At first glance, you might easily mistake the soaring, glass towers, awash in neon lights, for swish hotels or nightclubs. But the buildings, now scattered throughout Georgia, are, in fact, police stations, and they are intended to show citizens that the country’s re-organized law enforcement organs have nothing to hide.
Since 2008, when the Ministry of the Interior kicked off the construction campaign with its Italian-designed, spaceship-style headquarters, 80 glass police stations have been built, or are slotted to be built. Station designs vary from a pyramid in a Tbilisi suburb to a grass-roofed half-moon in the historic town of Mtskheta. The glass towers on new stations symbolize transparency and safety, according to First Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze. The stations’ creation coincides with the appearance of other futuristic, glass-sided public buildings, including “Houses of Justice,” one-stop shops for government services, also viewed as part of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s professed mission of modernization and democratization.
Clearly, the glass police stations have had a psychological impact on ordinary Georgians. Memories still run strong of Georgia’s lawless period after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when police acted more like armed, bribery-addicted vigilantes than as law enforcement officers. These days, the Interior Ministry claims an 87-percent public approval rating; the highest of any government agency, according to a 2011 survey, undertaken with US Agency for International Development funding.
To showcase the success of Georgia’s police makeover, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili in April even announced plans to export the glass police stations to five countries, including Lithuania. Additional destination details were not available.
Georgia’s new “architecture of security,” however, goes much deeper than its new police stations, noted Gavin Slade, author of “Mafia in Transition: Criminal Resilience and Adaptation in Post-Soviet Georgia.” Computerized patrol cars, closed circuit television for city streets, biometric ID cards, a 911-style hotline and police “monitors” in public schools are among other changes.
The degree to which transparency is part of that mix is not uniformly clear. The Interior Ministry did not provide EurasiaNet.org with the total budget for construction and design of its 80 new police stations, sending instead a link to the government’s online tender database. Only 39 of the tenders for construction of the stations could be found in the database. Tenders for architectural plans were not available.
The rationale for construction costs for an individual police station, some of which are built within close proximity of each other, is not always immediately apparent. A 1.1-million-lari ($674,557) police station is planned in Oni, an extended hamlet of 8,400 people in the remote mountainous region of Racha. Roughly a half-hour-drive away, the small town of Tsageri is approximately twice the size of Oni, but has a police station that will cost nearly the same -- 1.08 million lari or $662,292.
Zguladze commented that police stations’ cost and location are based on local needs. The glass stations’ cost, she pointed out, was lower than for traditional cement-and-brick buildings, offering a savings of “at least 20 percent” in maintenance costs.
Some allocations are attracting more attention than others. The Interior Ministry, for example, is setting aside $2.91 million (4.7 million lari) for the construction of two ministry “residential buildings” in the Black Sea village of Anaklia (population: 2,522). Zguladze said that the outlay is justifiable since the government plans to develop Anaklia eventually into a major port and resort center.
First Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze contacted EurasiaNet.org following the publication of this story on May 22, 2012, to provide additional information to earlier comments. Zguladze stated that, since 2009, the government has built or plans to build 98 police stations. The total construction cost of the stations is 56,985,687.81 lari, or $56.99 million. Architectural plans account for 722,251.51 lari, or $442,122.62, of that total.
Addressing the incomplete search results for police station tenders in the government's procurement database, Zguladze noted that Georgia uses a "decentralized procurement" system; tenders for police stations are filed under regions, as well as individual ministry departments. The database also does not include tenders published in print media before the database's creation.
Architecture is not “a game we have [been] playing to keep ourselves busy because we don’t have anything else to do,” she said.
Although the public image of Georgia’s police force may have improved, there are those who still believe that law enforcement officers primarily defend the interests of incumbent officials, not society as a whole.
“I don’t think much has changed in terms of having [the] police as [a] crucial safeguard of the ruling regime,” commented Alexander Kupatadze, a Tbilisi-based scholar specializing in corruption in post-Soviet countries. “It is just better camouflaged now under ‘citizen-oriented reform’.”
Citing the police’s 87-percent approval rating, Zguladze scoffed at such criticism, calling it “pretentious.”
“You cannot fool 87 percent of the population,” Zguladze said.
President Saakashvili sounded a similar note recently during an award ceremony for Interior Minister Merabishvili this month, saying that "the police do not belong to any particular party" and do not function as "a personal guard for any president or minister," the news bulletin service Civil.ge reported.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.