Snap Shot Georgia: From closed-door corruption to open data

Photo of sunrise in Tbilisi, Georgia
Sunrise in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city.

In 2003, the Republic of Georgia ranked 124 out of 133 countries and territories on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). In the decade since a peaceful change of power, the country has implemented transformative reforms both in political finance regulation and broader anti-corruption that might just make this small country in the Caucasus the anti-corruption comeback of the century.

A decade ago, the level of corruption built into the infrastructure of the bureaucracy disrupted daily life and hampered access to public services. For example, a complex system of licensing and permits created obstacles that served no purpose other than perpetuating bribery as a means to get things done. At the turn of the new millennium, citizen frustration over this type of rampant corruption began to mount. Combined with economic instability and public mistrust surrounding the rigging of that year’s parliamentary elections, this unrest snowballed and ultimately came to a head in what is now known as the Rose Revolution in November 2003.

Newly-elected and Western-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili immediately embarked on several anti-corruption campaigns and enacted broad reforms of highly mistrusted systems. High level government officials and business leaders found themselves interlaced with corruption charges. The police force faced a complete overhaul. The new administration had a clear goal: Strip the government completely clean of corruption.

As a result, the country currently holds spot 55 out of 177 in Transparency International’s most recent CPI, coming out ahead of several European countries — including the Czech Republic and Italy. The police force enjoys an approval rating of 87% and, according to Freedom House, in June 2009, 97% of Georgian citizens reported that they hadn’t paid a bribe in over 24 months.

Beyond overt quid pro quo corruption, reforms after the 2003 revolution manifested in new controls on political parties and candidates.

Prior to the Rose Revolution, regulations were already in place that imposed reporting requirements on candidates. The Election Code of Georgia of 2001 obliged candidates to report income and expenditures monthly throughout the campaign period, not sparing donor identities. The law also instituted the still-applicable GEL 30,000 ($17,311 USD) limit on how much an individual entity can contribute to a presidential campaign. However, any significant reporting requirements for political parties were still years off.

Former Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili
Former Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili

The first major amendments to put forth restrictions on political party funding and financial disclosure mechanisms were finally introduced in 2011. Some of these reforms advanced openness within the influence machine, including introducing more detailed declaration forms for political party finances.

On the other hand, some amendments that intuitively seemed to be positive steps toward accountability in financial reporting ultimately hindered legitimate transparency. For example, a ban on corporate contributions to political parties simply led to a shift in donations: Businesses began contributing as private persons rather than corporate entities. Transparency International Georgia found that, in 2012, the United National Movement received donations of GEL 6.6 million from individuals affiliated with companies that received a total value of more than GEL 160 million in non-competitive public tenders. That’s about $3.8 million USD and $92.5 million USD respectively.

A civil movement, backed by local civil society organizations and citizens, surfaced to address the gaps in transparency prompted by these new regulations and the government responded to their recommendations. In 2012, provisions were revised to reduce penalties for campaign violations. In 2013, the newly-elected government reduced penalties again and reinstated the legality of corporate contributions.

Now, all reports on party and campaign expenditures and funding, including the donor name, date and amount of contribution are publicly disclosed by the State Audit Office. These reports are made accessible to the public on the agency’s website in a timely and user-friendly fashion — donations to parties made this summer are already up in .xls format.

Although the format of political party funding data available on the government website doesn’t perfectly align with Sunlight’s dogma (Microsoft Excel is a proprietary format), the timely release of this detailed data, including information on donors, is spot on. The State Audit Office is even responsive to concerns about reporting forms and procedure. As a result of recent recommendations from Georgian civil society, additional declarations will soon be introduced further detailing party expenditures. At least on paper, the Republic of Georgia seems to be doing a lot of things right.

However, when TI-Georgia assessed the financials of political parties in 2013, comparing official donation disclosures from the previous year, they discovered something suspicious. The newly removed United National Movement experienced a decrease in donations. The difference wasn’t slight: donations to the party decreased by 40 times since leaving office. The analysis strongly indicates that some of the donations were not voluntary or perhaps the support was connected to convoluted benefits that donors will not continue to reap now that the United National Movement no longer in power.

Another recent TI-Georgia analysis of official political party expenses also yielded likely attempts to conceal donations from monitoring entities and the public. After calculating the estimated costs of television and outdoor advertisements, only two of the political parties could have actually afforded such ads with reported party expenses and donations. Fortunately, according to TI-Georgia, the State Audit Office generally tries to investigate such violations when they are uncovered. However, the case demonstrates a common problem with sensitive political datasets: Just because the information is available online, it doesn’t mean that it always accurately reflects how influence distorts the political system — or that it’s even accurate at all.

In many ways, Georgia sets the gold standard for data disclosure. Georgia has put significant emphasis on the benefits of e-governance and increasing the visibility of government services through a strong online presence. The country was just recently named one of the newest government members of the Open Government Partnerships’ Steering Committee and in progress commitments include a pledge to release datasets that empower accountability.

So, if a country with one of the most transparent political finance systems we’ve seen still exercises opaque influence practices, why does disclosure matter?

Georgia’s Cinderella story of going from one of the most corrupt former Soviet states to a (mostly) squeaky clean democracy illustrates both the value of good disclosure laws but also the necessity of using this data as a tool to fill in the holes in the story.

Even when political finance data is accessible and up-to-date, sensitive datasets should be met with some level of skepticism. Trust, but verify. That is why the role of civil society, journalists and citizen activists to conduct independent monitoring is crucial in confronting corruption of political power.

TI’s Political Finance Monitoring Project plays this role in the Georgia. Without political finance data, it would be impossible for civil society to perform analyses of this kind. Combining the information available with other innovative data sourcing techniques brings value to the data government releases. These efforts reveal the influence that those in power would prefer to remain unseen and in a responsive political climate such as Georgia, even result in tangible impacts, such as investigations and policy changes.

The necessity of enacting regulations that ensures political finance data is online and accessible cannot be stressed enough. However, simply having a wealth of open data is not enough. You have to do something with the data to achieve true transparency and accountability.