It wasn't too long ago that the sight of police inspired anxiety among residents in Georgia, where encounters often ended -- as they do in many parts of the former Soviet Union -- with the extraction of a small bribe.
But after an intensive drive to purge the country of petty corruption, many ordinary Georgians say they actually welcome the sight of police.
"Everything has really improved," says Shalva, an elderly car owner in the capital, Tbilisi. "There is no way the patrol officers are taking bribes. They even changed my flat tire for free so that I could keep on driving. What could be better than this?"
Anecdotal evidence like Shalva's may only go so far. But in its 2010 Global Corruption Barometer
, the corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) says statistical data also attests to the fact that a remarkable transformation has taken place over the past several years in Georgia as the government of Mikheil Saakashvili has pursued aggressive anticorruption reforms in the public service sector.
"There is no other country at the moment where more people see a decrease in corruption in their country, and where more people say the government is effective in fighting corruption," says Mathias Huter, a senior analyst with TI's Georgia office. "I think this is an indication that the Georgian government's efforts to fight petty corruption have been very successful."Besting The Neighbors
Worldwide, TI reports that corruption trends have been on the rise, with even Western and other developed countries reporting an increase in perceived corruption as the global economic crisis has eroded trust in public institutions.
In Georgia, by contrast, an astonishing 78 percent of people surveyed say they have seen a decrease in corruption in their country. Seventy-seven percent of respondents evaluate the government's efforts in fighting corruption as "effective."
Such numbers not only put Georgia in good stead internationally. They also present a sharp contrast to other newly independent states in their post-Soviet neighborhood, where corruption remains endemic. In Russia, for example, only 26 percent of people surveyed say the state has been effective in battling corruption; in Ukraine, that figure drops to 16 percent.
And in Georgia's South Caucasus neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, half of respondents say they have seen an increase in corruption, with only a handful reporting a decrease and the rest saying the situation remains unchanged.
"What is outstanding in Georgia compared to the other newly independent states is the amount of people who say that they have paid a bribe in the past 12 months," Huter says. "In Georgia, this number is very, very low -- it's only 3 percent of the people surveyed. So this is definitely a number that is remarkable for the region."
Higher Up, Problems Remain
The Georgian leadership is likely to celebrate the new findings as proof of the country's resilience in a near-constant climate of adversity. Saakashvili's government has seen its early aspirations of NATO and EU membership dim significantly in recent years under hostile pressure from Moscow and growing doubts about Tbilisi's democratic credentials.
Georgia has recently received a number of accolades, including plaudits from the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for ease of doing business and anticorruption efforts.
The new TI report will only contribute to Georgia's emerging reputation as a place where business, rather than democracy, has become a priority. (Another watchdog, Freedom House, in recent years has relegated Georgia to its lower, pre-Rose Revolution democracy ranking after several years of improvement on political rights and civil liberties.)
Even Georgia-watchers who applaud the achievements in battling petty corruption say the country is far from corruption-free. Political parties and the judiciary, in particular, remain largely unreformed.
Observers also point to the trend of crony capitalism, also called "elite" or "grand" corruption, that continues to flourish unchecked in government inner circles, out of view of the general public -- whether it's the awarding of a national lottery contract or handing near-monopoly control to Georgia's dominant Internet service provider, Caucasus Online.
"A government contract is being awarded and it's pretty clear who's going to get it in advance. If you don't know somebody, you're not going to get it," says Lincoln Mitchell, a Georgia expert and associate research scholar at the Harriman Institute at New York's Columbia University. "Businesses who want to, say, support candidates from other than the government party are going to encounter trouble running their businesses. I think a lot of businesses are aware of the possibility of shakedowns for taxes or bribes, depending on how you see it. So that higher level does still exist." Cultural Change
Other critics note that the government, with its considerable influence over the country's television media, has been able to trumpet its corruption-reform achievements in a nonstop PR blitz.
Shorena Shaverdashvili, the publisher and editor in chief of the Georgian magazine "Liberali," says with some 85 percent of Georgians receiving their news via television, Saakashvili's administration has been hugely successful in shaping its own public image.
Still, she and others cannot dismiss the importance of the government reforms. The culture of corruption has been so effectively eradicated from day-to-day life, she says, that it's highly unlikely that Georgia will backslide anytime soon, even under different leadership.
"Before, you really had to pay bribes to get your passport in time, and it was actually a hellish procedure to go through," she says. "It was driving time, and you had to go to 10 different people, and the bureaucracy behind it was horrible. There's definitely less corruption in public offices." RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Kharadze contributed to this piece from Tbilisi