Chris Boot and Thomas Dworzak look back to the mid-2000s, when Georgia's president abolished and rebuilt its police force
At this dynamic moment in American history, thinking about Minneapolis potentially replacing its police force and the broader movement to #defundthepolice, I found myself thinking about Georgia, the former Soviet state on the Black Sea. In 2009, I published a book involving Magnum’s photographers documenting a country radically re-imagined by its young president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power during Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ six years earlier. The boldest move the new president made was to fire the country’s entire police force, and start a new force from scratch, with new people, new uniforms, and new values.
Photographer Thomas Dworzak was responsible for dreaming up the Magnum project, and for my getting to visit Georgia while we worked on it. He was personally close to Saakashvili and his team. Neither of us claim any expertise on policing or criminal justice matters, but in the spirit of drawing on photographers’ experience to help think through big issues, I felt the urge to talk to him about this moment in history. I reached out to him, in Paris, and we met for a Zoom call.
Chris Boot: By way of background, can you tell us how you came to live in Tbilisi?
Thomas Dworzak: I got to Georgia by accident in 1993. I was 21 years old, and trying to become a photographer, and so I headed east from Germany, to where things were changing fast. I ended up in Abkhazia, the breakaway separatist republic that had split off from newly independent Georgia in a very bloody civil war that involved the expulsion of 300,000 ethnic Georgians. I was following the story from the Abkhazi side. And then I thought I’d stop in Tbilisi for a couple of months in 1994. I had a university scholarship I was supposed to take up, but by the time September came, I decided to drop my studies and stay in Georgia. I lived there until the end of the 1990s.
The Georgia I first got to know was a totally fucked up failed state. They had a couple of civil wars, and various separatist movements. Abkhazia and South Ossetia had already been snatched by the Russians, who were screwing with them at every turn. There was incredible criminality. The police were criminal, the criminals were criminal, it was one of the most corrupt and criminal places on earth. I think it was the most criminal place on earth. Everything got stolen, including anything metal, and cables, so that meant there were constant power cuts. And everyone stole electricity. If you lived next to a hospital, you could steal electricity from them, but then somebody else would be stealing it from you. Most people lost family members to criminal gangs, there was shooting and robbing all the time. It was never ending.
But the funny thing is that there were so few foreigners there, that everyone was nice to us, and I was safe. I never had any problem. I met a lot of criminals in a lot of situations, but they didn’t touch me. Famously, at that time, someone at the US Embassy gave out a security warning to all Americans in Georgia. There was an intern who came to Tbilisi to study, and he was totally freaked out. He was at my house for a party, and he had with him this doll in a plastic bag. I thought, that’s weird, what’s this 20-year old blond American guy walking around with a baby doll? I asked him. He explained “It’s for security”. Apparently the American Embassy security staff had advised him to carry a baby doll around with him, and talk to the doll while he walked the streets of Tbilisi, in English, so he would out himself as both a foreigner, and a father. And then he’d be safe because criminals respected foreigners and fathers with babies.
CB: And what about the police?
TD: The police were the big issue. They were who you feared most. You would worry about driving, if you were a normal Georgian, because you’d get stopped at a roadblock and the police would fleece you. You wouldn’t report a crime because you weren’t sure if you would be able to pay the bribe to have it investigated. I mostly had to drink my way through all my encounters with the police. Because they were happy to meet a foreigner if you would have a drink with them.
CB: You had to drink your way through road blocks? That’s how you get through?
TD: I got better at drinking, but I would also be trying to take pictures, so in a cheesy foreigner way, I would take a ‘drink bodyguard’ along with me, who was a friend who liked drinking. When I went out I’d ask him to come, and then when we got stopped by police, and we had to drink, my friend would do all the toasts, while I had some story like I had liver sclerosis or something. And he would drink for me! That’s how we’d get through the checkpoint. Ordinary people would just get fleeced. I mean, they killed the deputy head of the CIA at a roadblock in 1993. It was out of control.
CB: Were the police an organised criminal gang?
TD: They were the organised police! At the time you could buy yourself the title of a traffic cop. That was the low end. You buy that and so you’re a traffic cop, and you could stand on the street and you could hold out a stick and stop cars and threaten to confiscate people’s driving license. If you had more money, or your family was able to put more money in, you could buy yourself a procurement job — that was a good job — or an investigator job. Jobs that involved drugs were the best jobs to buy, because you could earn a lot of money taking bribes. There were organised criminal groups who ran the politics and the wars, but the police were the terror of Georgians’ daily lives.
“You don’t fire the entire police, especially in a place as criminal as Georgia. But the moment the police were gone, suddenly there was no more crime”
CB: And were you there when the Rose Revolution happened?
TD: I wasn’t living in Tbilisi at the time, but I went to cover the revolution in 2003, when Saakashvili took power from [Eduard] Shevardnadze. Saakashvili was this US-trained human rights lawyer, who had been working in Strasbourg, and this was all interesting, but this was also the time of the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, so I was preoccupied with that. But Georgia was in my blood. I’m always laughing about the fact that every day of my life, I do something Georgian. Something. I call someone, or someone calls me. Every day something Georgian happens. I wasn’t there when Saakashvili fired the police, but I was in touch. And I was like, “Wow! The police got fired! Great!” But I also thought this is kind of crazy. You don’t fire the entire police, especially in a place as criminal as Georgia. But overnight, the police were gone, and as everyone keeps saying, suddenly there was no more crime. It was this incredible moment. The police were gone, and everyone realised things would be ok.
CB: Can you say more about how this happened?
TD: I never covered the Georgian police as a story and I wasn’t there when they got fired. It was relatively soon after the revolution. After all the police were fired, they immediately started recruiting new people. They had a new uniform ready. The New York Police Department helped them. Some NYPD instructors came over for speed training of the new recruits. Saakashvili had studied at Columbia University in New York, and I guess he knew a guy in the police, and he was able to get a team over to help. People were laughing about these beefy NYPD cops running around at the time, telling everyone what to do. It was incredible how this anti-corruption, anti-police measure worked so fast. As a photographer, you always want to bitch about nothing ever working, but on this occasion, you couldn’t, because it went well and it worked. And it kept working.
CB: So, on one day the entire police force is fired, and then is there a replacement force ready?
TD: For the first few weeks, after the police were fired, there was no security force of any kind. A few guards on the border, maybe, but otherwise no-one. The people they recruited were young, and they introduced new criteria, like you had to be able to speak English. They introduced things that you couldn’t imagine happening in Georgia, like now you couldn’t drink and drive. I thought, everyone in this whole country spent the whole time comatose with alcohol, [so] how could you force these people not to drink and drive? But by introducing a strict and simple punishment, the new force caused behaviour to change almost overnight. The government changed the penal code, they changed everything.
The former system was the Soviet system, and it was built for corruption. For instance, if you got stopped on the street by a traffic cop, he confiscates your driver’s license. So you have to go to court to get it back, and you pay a ridiculously small amount to get it back. But the court process is ridiculous. If you don’t live in the town where you got your driving license confiscated, you have to move there until you get to court. To cut through all that, you pay a bribe. There was also a situation with the prisons, where a lot of the criminal gangs were run out of the prisons. Simultaneously with firing the police, he introduced prison reform, and he broke the role of prisons in organised crime. He released a lot of people, and many of them went to Moscow, or Spain. So he didn’t solve the problem entirely, because a lot of organised crime bosses ended up becoming the nuisances of Europe, running organised crime across the continent.
CB: Was there a reassessment of who should be in jail? I’m thinking of the US system, which is self-evidently racist, and so badly needs reform.
TD: All I know is the common assessment that Saakashvili broke organised crime, and these capos sitting in the security of prison running their gangs, he ended it all. Most people were let out of prison, if they hadn’t been convicted of murder. Today, everyone complains that the Georgian police and the Georgian legal system is petty, and too strict. But there is no window for corruption any more. It’s not surprising that there is nostalgia for corruption. The whole country was built on corruption. During the Soviet era, corruption was the source of Georgia’s prosperity. You gave the stupid Moscow bureaucrats two bottles of wine and they built you an asphalt road. Not any more.
CB: Really, there is no more corruption?
TD: There’s a little bit more corruption here and there, but all in all, this absolutely radical change was never undone. And with a government there now that’s built on rejecting everything that Saakashvili did, calling him the antichrist, they still didn’t touch his police reforms. The problem is that firing the police also led in a way to Saakashvili’s downfall. With this very strict attitude to law and corruption, Georgia ended up with the highest population of prisoners in the world, proportionally, and that led a lot of people to be unhappy with the government.
CB: They threw him out but not the system?
TD: They voted him out. Like a normal country.
“Saakashvili brought people in from the NYPD to build a totally new force, now, is it time for the reverse to happen?”
CB: Do you think about Saakashvili, and the re-imagining of Georgia, in relation to what’s happening today in the US? And what is going on in France too? I am sure France is going to be pulling down its statues of slave-traders and throwing them into the Seine pretty soon, if they are not already. It feels like a phenomenal societal change is possible now.
TD: It’s funny, yesterday was our wedding anniversary and the woman who married us was the head of the Georgian police, this young woman who single-handedly ran the police. So I was thinking of her and I texted her saying, “I hope you are going to go to America and help them sort this out!”
CB: So, Saakashvili might have brought people in from the NYPD to build a totally new force, but now it’s the time for the reverse to happen?
TD: Yes! But the Georgians don’t have much experience of racism. Even though there was plenty of potential for tension with their own minorities, the Armenians and the Azeris, and they had conflicts that were along ethnic lines, which became armed conflicts, these were economic and political turf wars, rather than wars driven by ethnic hatred. And they were not at each other’s throats over generations, compared to the Balkans for example.
The big thing, for me, is that I never thought I would feel close to a government. I’m a photographer, which means you stay away from government. If there’s demonstrations against the government, you go out with the demonstrators. I really loved Georgia in the ‘90s, when it was so bad – it’s where I became a photographer and did some of my best work there, at the cost of five wars.
I would wonder, what’s going to happen if Georgia ever becomes normal? But then I thought, it’s never going to become normal! And then I’m back, 10 years later, and embracing this incredible governmental success story. That was weird for me. Normally, I would have moved on, and looked for the next sad, tragic situation, but actually, no. Staying was natural. I don’t pretend to be neutral, I embraced it. I worked for the Georgian government. Absolutely. Because I thought it was the right thing to do at the time. They showed me that they could take on the project of this incredibly screwed up country, and fix it. It’s hard for me to compare it to the US, but in Eastern Europe, the Georgian model stands as an example. Look! You can change a failed state, you can fix it! You can take a deep breath, take a bold move, and fix it! And five years later they will boot you out and be ungrateful for it, but there you go.
CB: Are you still president of Magnum?
TD: I have 16 more days! I have a little clicker on the wall counting the days!
CD: Magnum has this very significant base in New York, and I’m sure, as with every organisation in the USA, you are processing the consequences of this incredible moment. Can you say anything about that?
TD: The New York photographers are leading the way on issues of race, and very strongly. We all feel the need for change. The more diversity the better. Magnum has to change. Everyone has to change.
Thomas Dworzak is a member of Magnum Photos, and has been its president since 2017. Chris Boot is the executive director of the Aperture Foundation, and previously ran his own photobook company, publishing Georgian Spring: A Magnum Journal in 2009.