If I had to say what the biggest loss was for Georgia since our independence in 1991, I would say time. All of the advances and progress we’ve made should have been done much more quickly. This is due to so many reasons – regime change, invasion, too little assistance from the West (although I can’t imagine where we would be without the assistance we have gotten).
Georgians have, however, benefited from many achievements that are noticeable even for those who are visiting our country for a short time: the lowest crime rate in both the region and the EU (documented for the first time in our 2010-2013 Victimization Surveys), low levels of corruption (although I can’t document elite corruption), highest election standards in the region, a fairly free media, a relatively high level of freedom of speech, laissez-faire business regulations, our rugby national team and excellent soccer league (Just kidding! Our soccer team is the only thing that makes me nostalgic for the USSR).
But… we have also had some major setbacks, and one of these is our large prison population caused by the Zero Tolerance policy declared in 2006 by President Saakashvili. The prison population doubled almost overnight and, in Georgia, nothing was certain except death and being punished if you entered the justice system. Georgia had a 99.9% conviction rate under Saakashvili. After the regime change in 2012, the prison population went back to its “normal” level.
A few weeks ago, while conducting pre-election surveys, we asked three representative samples (nationwide and two booster samples of Armenian and Azeri ethnic minorities) of the population the following question: Do you personally know any one that was indicted or imprisoned at any time for any reason by the Saakashvili/Georgian Dream government?
The survey reveals that on a national level, one in every four adult respondents knows at least one person who was punished by the justice system during the Saakashvili era, and only half that number recall knowing anyone who shared the same fate during the Georgian Dream (the ruling party since 2013 October who will enjoy a constitutional majority in the new parliament) government.
Interestingly, compared to the nationwide sample, 6% fewer ethnic Armenians and 11% fewer ethnic Azeris were acquainted with a person who was either indicted or imprisoned during Saakashvili’s regime. Under the Georgian Dream government, 17% of ethnic Armenians and 9% ethnic Azeri’s can still recall a convicted person.
The numbers may seem impressive, but they actually did major damage to society in general, and the economy in particular. GORBI conducted another Victimization Survey in 2013 and it clearly showed no increase in crime rates compared to 2010 or 2011 when the prison population in Georgia reached its peak, and these results for me and my colleagues meant one thing – thousands of detainees could have avoided prison if the government used other punishments (such as fines or probation), if they even deserved punishment at all.
Memories are like apples, a single bad one can spoil the whole bunch, and they play a big role when it comes to voter choice. Bad memories played a significant role in Georgian Dream’s recent electoral triumph, way more than Georgian Dream’s political marketing skills.
GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. Since 2003, GORBI remains an exclusive member of Gallup International research network for its two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial.