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Firing of traffic police force stands as a symbol of hope in Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia—If there's a visible metaphor for the promise of Georgia's fledgling democracy, it might be right here on the tree-lined, pot-holed streets of the capital.

A year ago, the most feared and hated people in Georgia were the traffic police, not the KGB goons, the criminal militias or the fat-cat business pals and wealthy relatives of the former president.

"The traffic police were the real symbol of corruption," said Alexander Rondeli, a presidential adviser and a former Georgian diplomat. "Everything bad from the post-Soviet days was concentrated in them."

The traffic cops would station themselves on city streets or rural highways, using their white batons to wave over motorists at random. Their arbitrary, on-the-spot fines could easily equal a week's wages for the average Georgian.

Arguing a fine could result in a beating, the loss of one's vehicle or worse. Part of each officer's daily take was kicked up to his superiors, further links in the chain of corruption.

"So we fired them," President Mikhail Saakashvili said. "We fired the Georgian police."

He didn't mean just a few corrupt officers. He meant the entire national force.

It's since been replaced by polite, Western-trained recruits in smart new uniforms who travel in blue-and-white VW patrol cars.

"People actually like the police now," Rondeli said. "Most importantly, it shows people that the very worst part of our society could be reformed. It shows them there's hope."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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