Georgia’s Traffic Cops Start to Straighten Up

The Moscow Times
Tuesday, July 20, 2004. Page 11.

Georgia’s Traffic Cops Start to Straighten Up

By Chloe Arnold

TBILISI, Georgia — Ask most residents of the former Soviet Union about
traffic police, and they’ll come out with a long list of expletives.

Everyone has their own story about the notorious gaishniki, usually
involving heated exchanges, extortion and downright rudeness. My favorite is
the man who was ordered to stop on his way out to the airport in Moscow.

“What could I possibly have done wrong?” he asked the fat policemen who
ambled round to the driver’s side window and spat twice on the ground. “I’m
wearing a seatbelt, I’m driving well below the speed limit, and I wasn’t
passing anyone.”

“I didn’t like the way you just pulled over,” the policeman said. “You’re

The South Caucasus is no different. In Azerbaijan, if the gaishniki can’t
think of a valid reason to take money from you, they simply say: “Tomorrow
is a national holiday. I need to take my family to a restaurant.”

In Armenia, they are not as blatant, but I have been fined for speeding
after being passed by a tractor.

The Georgians used to be the worst of all. In one 50-kilometer stretch I was
stopped 12 times for offenses ranging from the convoluted (“You’re not
carrying a fire extinguisher or reflective ‘Stop’ triangle in the trunk of
your car”) to the just plain daft (“You can’t stop here”).

But all that has changed. Georgia has turned over a new leaf, and there is
no place for crooked traffic cops any more. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili,
the young and dynamic new president, came to power, he has vowed to clamp
down on corruption.

His plan seems to have worked. These days, public sector workers receive
decent wages, so they do not have to turn to bribe-taking to make ends meet.
At the border you now have to fill in all your forms in triplicate and they
give you proper receipts — something unheard of in the past.

As for the road police, you hardly see them any more. There used to be a
patrol car stationed at almost every bend on the main roads. Now, they have
all but disappeared. And if you are caught doing something you shouldn’t,
the policeman fills out a proper form, fines you the correct amount and
sends you on your way with a friendly wave.

All the same, the new regime does not seem to have penetrated the further
outposts of the country. On our way through Kutaisi, an industrial city in
western Georgia, the other day, we were flagged down.

“What’s the problem?” my husband asked.

“Decide for yourself,” he said. “But unless you pay me $20, I’ll have your
car impounded.” It seems those anti-corruption measures still have some way
to go.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.