Georgia: Politicians behaving badly

A Code of Ethics is a useful guide for Members of the Parliament (MPs) on how to behave – a list of things to do (and not do) when in public office. This was the objective for adopting a Parliamentary Ethics Code in Georgia, which was passed in 2004.

When designed right, codes of ethics provide clear benchmarks for the public to judge MPs’ behavior and boost the country’s international profile on good governance and fighting corruption. Unfortunately, the code has not been actively implemented in Georgia despite the need for it.

Recurring ethical misdeeds of Georgian Parliamentarians has brought them notoriety in the public and marred the Parliament’s prestige. There are popular videos showing Parliamentarians using their absent colleagues’ identification cards to cast their votes, making xenophobic statements insulting and slapping their peers for expressing different opinions. There are also investigative reports about senior MPs holding shares in food and car companies that easily have won large state tenders.

These instances stand at odds with the MPs’ commitments to uphold the principles of integrity, tolerance, courtesy and accountability under the 2004 Code of Ethics. They do not contribute to raising public trust of the Parliament either, which is not very high (37%) according to the latest Caucasus Barometer Survey (2011). Another recent public opinion survey done by Transparency International, shows that public officials and the Parliament are considered the institutions in Georgia that are second and third most affected by corruption after political parties and judiciary.

In 2004, Transparency International Georgia (TI Georgia), with support from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), championed the proposal to have a single Parliamentary document that would combine basic ethical standards required for an MP’s conduct. This idea also commanded great support from the then Parliament leadership and the MPs themselves. On 12 October 2004, the Code of Ethics was adopted as a general and non-binding declaration giving Parliamentarians leeway to decide on their ethical dilemmas and delegating the oversight role to the general public.

Eight years have passed since the code’s adoption but unethical acts by MPs still continue unabated.

TI Georgia has spoken with a number of Parliamentarians to find out why this has been the case. It was striking to hear that many current MPs had not even heard about or read the code. Those familiar with the code felt that it had failed to prevent ethical wrongdoing since its provisions were not mandatory and could not be enforced.

Listen to the author of this blog post speak about the importance of codes of conduct in his country:

TI Georgia has recently published a brief policy paper discussing this problem and suggesting ways to strengthen the code’s implementation. A number of important recommendations can be drawn from the Georgian case that could also be applicable elsewhere.

  • The first thing to consider is to make the Code of Ethics binding for all MPs. This can be done by embedding it in Parliamentary Rules of Procedure and complementing it with detailed citations to all relevant laws.
  • At the same time, there should be a reputational liability imposed in cases where MPs’ ethical misconduct (e.g., impudence, swearing and slapping) have no specific penalties based on the legislation. This could come in the form of a reprimand, public naming and shaming, forfeiture of allowances, or temporary suspension of voting rights.
  • An ethics regulatory body should be set up that is credible, influential and composed of MPs themselves, including representatives from all factions.  Ethical norms in the Parliament need to be self-regulated to ensure that Parliamentarians feel ownership of the system but also to preserve the independence of the Parliament and the immunity of its members.
  • Awareness-raising is another essential element for improving Parliamentarians’ ethical conduct. The Parliament should post the Code of Ethics prominently on its web page. It also should require all its members to publicly sign the document and swear allegiance to its principles. Such symbolic actions would help to integrate ethical principles into the country’s value system and turn the Parliament into a leading example of accountability and good governance.

TI Georgia presented its findings at an OSCE Conference on Codes and Standards of Ethics for Parliamentarians which was held in Tbilisi on 19 April 2012. The Georgian MPs present at the conference, both from Parliamentary majority and minority, committed to taking on the recommendations to upgrade the Code of Ethics and promote it better.

TI Georgia continues to monitor ethical issues in the Georgian Parliament, provide assistance when needed and involve all relevant stakeholders in consultations to make the existing system work better.

Read more about codes of conduct for Parliamentarians and public officials here.

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