Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia has unveiled plans to increase the efficiency of the country's police force. But the proposed reforms have led to doubts about their ability to reverse a steady decline in public trust in the police, and to suggestions that Gakharia is not the right person for the job.
The 42-year-old Gakharia, a former economy minister with degrees in political science and business management from Moscow State University, was named interior minister four months ago as part of a sweeping cabinet reshuffle.
He has previously served as business ombudsman, and then, from November 2016 to November 2017, as minister of economy and sustainable development, but had absolutely no previous experience in law enforcement.
Despite this, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili predicted that he would cope successfully with his new duties, noting his management capabilities.
In a recent interview he gave to the website Civil.ge, Gakharia stressed that he sees himself first and foremost as a manager responsible for the efficient functioning of the ministry.
He singled out as its primary function guaranteeing security in a region where doing so is both "a huge challenge" and the precondition for economic growth. He also emphasized the need for absolute political neutrality.
Structural Changes, New Techniques
To meet those objectives, Gakharia plans to implement within the next couple of months a reform of the ministry that focuses on its three main departments: the traffic police, the criminal police, and the border police. Those reforms, he explained, will entail both structural changes and introducing new techniques (including digitization) to improve human resources procedures and render investigations more effective.
Gaakharia also plans a new 12-person unit within the ministry that will focus exclusively on human rights abuses, first and foremost domestic violence, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported on January 25.
One change that is apparently not on the cards, however, is the introduction of the post of police chief, which would enable the interior minister to concentrate on policy issues. Gakharia declined to offer an explanation for that omission, while admitting that he currently spends up to 60 percent of his time on day-to-day affairs, meeting every morning with the heads of the three police departments.
Gakharia had earlier acknowledged "certain problems" with regard to public perceptions of the police, problems that he said could hinder the reform process. Public trust in the Georgian police has fallen from 67 percent in 2011 (the year before the parliamentary election that brought the Georgian Dream coalition to power) to 51 percent in 2017, according to Civil.ge.
Irakli Gharibashvili, who was named interior minister in the wake of that election victory, described the ministry in early 2013 as "a closed system that was under political diktat" and that functioned as a tool for "repressing" political opponents; he pledged to make it "transparent [and] open to public scrutiny."
Accordingly, Gharibashvili launched a sweeping reform of the police which, he claimed in November 2014, had transformed the way the police interact with the public at large.
Then in 2015, the security and intelligence services, which had been subsumed into the Interior Ministry in 2004, were decoupled from it to form a separate State Security Service, a move that then Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri predicted would provide for "the de-concentration of excessive power within [a single ministry] and … have a positive effect on the efficient protection of human rights." Gomelauri added that, if necessary, further reforms would be implemented gradually within the slimmed-down Interior Ministry.
When the separation took place in the summer of 2015, however, Gomelauri was named head of the new State Security Service, and former Penitentiaries Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili, who had worked at the Interior Ministry as an investigator in 1998-2004, succeeded him as interior minister.
In January 2016, Mghebrishvili appointed three new deputies in what he described as the first stage of fundamental staff and systemic reforms in the criminal and border police intended to produce better results in the fight against crime. A few weeks earlier, Mghebrishvili had admitted that the number of grave crimes had risen "to a certain extent."
It appears, however, that whatever further changes Mghebrishvili implemented failed to achieve the required result. In January 2018, the Interior Ministry published detailed crime statistics for the first time in two years. That data revealed a 5.4 percent increase in the total number of crimes committed in 2017 compared with 2016, while the percentage of crimes solved fell from 57.4 percent in 2016 to 53.2 percent in 2017, according to InterPressNews.
Two further initiatives are intended to underpin Gakharia's planned reform of his ministry. The first is a draft bill initiated by the Interior Ministry that will intensify the penalties for abetting or protecting so-called "thieves-in-law," meaning influential crime bosses who succeed in operating with impunity thanks to protection from senior government officials.
The second is the introduction, in January 2019, of an independent State Inspector Service that will probe suspected crimes committed by police officers. The rationale cited for that initiative is that the Prosecutor-General's Office has an appalling track record with regard to such investigations: Out of a total of 91 cases concerning the suspected use of force by police officers to which NGOs and the human rights ombudsman alerted the prosecutor's office in 2014-2017, only two ever came to trial, according to the news portal Caucasian Knot.