Arriving in Tbilisi, Georgia, is a refreshing jolt for the senses. The boorish border guards typical of former Soviet republics suspiciously leafing through your passport (to find a visa it took you weeks to obtain) are replaced by courteous people providing a visa and hassle-free service at the city’s small airport. Driving into town provides another. Along the highway, a wavy ribbon of light-blue glass floats off a flat expanse of manicured grass, brilliantly lit against the dark, moonless night. That, I discovered, is the new Interior Ministry headquarters. The friendly border guards and this Italian-designed architectural masterpiece are related.
Georgia’s young leadership is western-educated, English-speaking and ruthlessly reformist. They yearn to be seen as typically European: the EU flag floats alongside the Georgian one in every official location. But that building reveals a very Georgian approach to public policy, a country in which theatre and politics are deeply intertwined. No political discussion is complete without histrionic drama. Opponents are not merely deluded, they are traitors. Leaders are never just wrong. They are also always evil or corrupt. Tea Party types would feel right at home here.
Among all this debate, there is one thing everyone agrees on: the country’s radical police reforms have brought extraordinary results. Petty corruption has effectively disappeared. The police, once feared and despised, are now among the country’s most trusted institutions. This was a very Georgian reform, heavy on drama (to kick things off, the country’s entire force was fired), and reliant on symbolic props such as that floating glass ribbon, designed by Michele De Lucchi. His building kicked off a construction spree of new police stations across the country. They all seem to be copies of Apple’s Park Avenue glass box. “Police work should be transparent”, says Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiahsvili. In their limpid stations, police cannot put illegal pressure on suspects, for example. Without hidden corners, there is no room for dirt to accumulate.
The approach has impressed at least one other reform-minded former Soviet republic. Kyrgyzstan’s Deputy PM, Shamil Atakhanov, was in Tbilisi recently to learn Georgia’s police reform lessons.