[OUTLOOK]Young reformers liberalize GeorgiaDuring my trip to Turkey, I visited its neighboring country of Georgia. It might be an unfamiliar country for some readers, so I would like to start with a brief introduction.
Georgia became an independent state in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This country that is the size of Switzerland is inhabited by 4 million people. It was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, and his mother is buried there. It is also known for being the first country to make wine from grapes. The rich and the powerful during the Soviet era used to spend vacations at its resorts on the Black Sea.
Eduard Shevardnadze, who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, was the president of Georgia from 1995 to 2003, but he had to hand over power to young reformists not too long ago. Tbilisi, the capital, was a historical crossroad of the Silk Road, and is emerging lately as a new strategic point for oil transportation. Geographically, Georgia is an obstacle to the southward advancement policy of Russia. The small country is also noteworthy for having its own writing system, like Hangul.
My main interest was how the young politicians, who drove out the famous Mr. Shevardnadze and pulled off the so-called “Rose Revolution,” were managing the state administration. From the moment I arrived at the airport, the impression I got of Georgia was poverty itself. While the per-capital national income is said to be $1,000, the reality was worse than that figure. However, what I experienced during my research was shocking in many ways.
I was most amazed at the young age of the cabinet ministers. The average age of the ministers and vice ministers was 32. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led the Rose Revolution, is 37 years old. Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli is 41 years old, the second-oldest among the cabinet members. Many directors and assistant secretaries of central government agencies were aged between 25 and 28, and there are a number of ministers who had just turned 30.
Most officials who were over 40 years of age, spoke fluent Russian and served in key public offices in the past have been driven out. Their positions have been replaced by young, English-speaking reformists, who are turning the existing rules and orders upside down. Cynics call the current administration a “kindergarten cabinet.”
When I told Prime Minister Nogaideli that his cabinet was too young, he refuted that aggressively. “Mr. Shevardnadze did nothing in his 10 years in power. If we were to renounce the Soviet system, we needed to get rid of the leaders from that era,” he said.
I asked again if young amateurs can accomplish a proper reform after ousting the old professionals. He countered, “Professionals are needed, but what’s more important now is people who share a code. In last year’s tax reform, we fixed the rates of both the individual and corporate income taxes at 20 percent. We all understand how important the redistribution of income is. However, everything needs to be simple. When things get complicated, we end up with corruption.”
When I pressed him on why the government did not implement a progressive tax system of imposing a higher tax rate for the rich, he cut the discussion short by saying, “The more complicated a system gets, the more side effects it will have.”
The prime minister spoke of a number of reform projects in progress. For example, government regulations have been lifted and state corporations are being drastically privatized regardless of which country the capital comes from. Of course, the Georgian government welcomes Korean capital. The prime minister was not the only one enthusiastic about Georgia’s reform. All of the ministers and vice ministers I met during my trip were “enfants terribles,” who share the same code and pursue a small government and a drastic open door policy.
What outcome will their reform bring about? The reform drive of the “participatory government” of Korea is no match for that of the Georgian leaders. While the intensity of their reform was incomparably strong, the direction was the opposite to that pursued by our government.
Dr. Tamar Kovziridze, the 28-year-old Deputy Minister of Economic Development, said, “I went to Korea last year, but there was nothing to learn. The reform led by government regulation and initiation is just the opposite to the direction of Georgia’s reform.”
The deposed former president, Mr. Shevardnadze, is reportedly writing a memoir at his residence. How is he recording the reform pursued by 32-year-old ministers?
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu