Have you ever been happy after paying a fine?
I have. It was back in 2005 and I had illegally parked my car in Tbilisi. A police officer approached and told me I would have to pay a fine for the infraction. I then did what came naturally for someone raised in the Soviet Union -- I instinctively offered to pay a bribe.
But to my surprise -- and ultimate delight -- the police officer refused, saying I would have to pay the full fine and that he would even give me a receipt. It would be all legal and above board. In the end, I was happy to part with my 40 Lari (about $30), especially when I contemplated what I was getting in return -- a functioning state, which is something Georgia hadn't had for centuries.
Most importantly, I felt like a real citizen.
As Georgia marks the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution the mood is somber and the celebrations of past years are conspicuously absent. This is understandable. The revolution has lost a lot of its luster and Georgians are in a funk. But it is important to remember, despite the disillusionment of the moment, what we have gained and how far we have come.
Breaking Moscow's Grip
To understand what I mean, we have to look back at the pre-Rose Revolution era, when Georgia hardly deserved to be even called a state.
The country was run by the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. There was no effective governmental system, no working institutions, and no functional economy. Cronyism dominated, public services were decrepit, public servants were incompetent, and criminality flourished.
As a result of this weakness, Russia -- whose post-Soviet leaders never gave up the ambition to dominate Tbilisi both politically and economically -- was able to strengthen its grip over its small southern neighbor. State-controlled energy giants like Gazprom, for example, were buying up Georgia's energy sector. In their desire to stay in power at any cost, Shevardnadze and his clan were prepared to make further concessions to Russia and let Moscow establish strategic control over Georgia.
From this perspective, the events of November 2003 marked a giant leap for Georgia, not just from its Soviet past but also from Russia's post-Soviet grip.
It is therefore not surprising that the Kremlin has used every tool at its disposal to undermine President Mikheil Saakashvili’s rule almost from the moment he came to office. In the immediate aftermath of the Rose Revolution, for example, Moscow hosted a gathering of leaders of Georgia’s two breakaway regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - something that can hardly be described as a friendly gesture.
Yet despite Moscow’s continuing efforts to destabilize Tbilisi -- by manipulating energy supplies, banning Georgian imports from Russia, and cutting all transport links between the two countries -- Georgia has managed some meaningful reforms. Corruption has been significantly reined in, a new domestic infrastructure has been built, public services have been overhauled, and the police have been completely reformed.
A Work In Progress
This does not mean I am happy with everything Saakashvili’s government has done. Not even close.
I certainly don’t share U.S. President George W. Bush’s laughably inaccurate characterization of Georgia as "beacon of democracy." There is not a single nationwide TV channel in the country, which is not directly or indirectly controlled by the state. The judiciary is far from independent. The legislative branch is nothing but an obedient executor of the will of the government. The governing style of the president and his closest aides can be best characterized by the formula "we know best, so don't interfere."
All that needs to change if the democratic development in the country is to become as irreversible as its drive away from Russia's grip and toward the West.
While preparing to cover the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution, RFE/RL's Georgian Service asked some 50 citizens across the country a simple question: Is Georgia a better place today than it used to be five years ago?
Not surprisingly, the answers ranged from "much better" to "far worse." Can you expect a 45-year old man who lost his job after the Revolution to be happy with the change? Probably not. Not to mention tens of thousands of displaced people, who have been driven out from their homes by the five-day war with Russia this summer.
But one respondent from a small town in the western province of Imereti -- where regular water, electricity, and fuel shortages were once the norm -- best reflected my feelings on the changes. Now, not only are those shortages a thing of the past, he told us, but the area also has a network of roads connecting its villages and towns with each other and with the provincial capital Kutaisi.
This man now sees the benefits of a functioning state and feels like a citizen, just like I did when I paid my parking ticket.
Are we better off than five years ago? My answer is a clear yes. But we still have a lot more work to do.
David Kakabadze is director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.