I am on The Freedom Association's Facebook list and the invitation to today's Freedom in the City meeting caught my eye. It was addressed by the Georgian Ambassador to London, Mr Giorgi Badridze. His Excellency has been rather forthright in the past about his country's relations with Russia. I knew the other side of that story and wanted to hear his.
I was living in Moscow in 2006 when Russia embargoed Georgian goods. The police came to Moscow schools looking for children with Georgian names, so that the whole family could be deported. Georgian wine (80% of which had previously been bought by Russians) suddenly disappeared from supermarket shelves and the Georgian-themed hotel in the same street as my office was speedily renamed.
I was also there for the 2008 war during which Russia siezed some Georgian territory. It is still occupied by Russian troops, both FSB and regular army. Understandably therefore, and with diplomatic relations broken, the ambassador pulled few punches. Georgia, he said, had shown that a country with a history of totalitarianism and corruption could move forward to a better life. He hoped Russia would soon also "join the civilised world".
I wince slightly to think of the reaction of my charming Russian friends to his words. I suggested to him that the real problem is Russia's continued (and unecessarily) negative view of "The West" (whatever that may be). Even the educated, intelligent Russian people I worked with could not understand why Georgia should want to join the West in general and NATO in particular. The Chekists in the Russian elite are using Georgia as a proxy to sustain a unifying, but rather nasty, anti-Western nationalism among the wider population. I suggested Georgia might have a role to play (given that - unlike us - the Georgian people enjoy Russian affection) in solving that greater problem.
He feared that the old goodwill had been killed by propaganda. He pointed to the fact that anyone with "southern" looks is now likely to be beaten on the streets of Moscow by nationalist thugs. Sadly he's right about that. An Anglo-Indian former colleague was taken for a Georgian or Chechen and thoroughly beaten while in Moscow to visit our office. As further evidence of the nastiness being dangerously fostered in Russia, he cited the hero's funeral (with senior politicians in attendance) given to disgraced Colonel Yuri Budanov. Strong stuff.
I read with interest the recent comments by Robert Gates, about to retire as the United States' Secretary of Defense. Personally, I would be delighted to see NATO disbanded, as I think it should have been immediately when the Soviet Union fell. It was formed as an alliance against the USSR and, while it genuinely sought (as any redundant bureaucracy will) to re-task itself, its continued existence sent all the wrong signals. I have no doubt that Poland, for example, joined NATO as a deliberate and typically exuberant provocation to its former comrades masters. Not that I justify Russia's behaviour, but it should have been no surprise to the West's governments that Russia reacted badly to Georgia's membership application.
What has all this fascinating stuff to do with the mission of The Freedom Association (or this blog)? Most of the ambassador's presentation was not about Russia, but about the reforms in post-Soviet Georgia. The government there dismissed the entire corrupt police force and recruited anew; beginning with the traffic police. Interestingly, road accidents declined during the handover month when there were no traffic cops! Public confidence in the police (polling at 3% before the reforms) has risen steadily since and corruption has, he claims, been eliminated.
Under the Shevardnadze regime, taxes were both heavy and numerous. It was impossible to do legal business profitably, as the whole system was designed to drive businessmen into the arms of corrupt officials. There are only six taxes in Georgia today (Income Tax, Corporation Tax, Value Added Tax, Customs, Excise and a local tax to fund local authorities). Income tax is flat and the results would, His Excellency claimed, "...put a smile on the face of Mr Laffer of the famous curve." GDP increased 12% in the year after the tax reforms and even now, post-crisis, was running at an annualised 8.5% in the first quarter. One of the questioners from the floor asked, "Could your government send ours a manual?" Quite.
I am not a member of The Freedom Association. After my flirtation with the Libertarian Party (of which I am no longer a member) I am in no mood to join any non-mainstream group at present (though I may venture a bit of Libertarian entryism shortly). Perhaps I should be braver, but I simply don't want to hang out with any weirdoes who might, by association, undermine the credibility of the common-sense political ideas I wish to advance. I was therefore curious to see what manner of folk might be found in TFA's ranks. There were a couple of eccentrics among the 20-30 attendees, including a splendid character in hiking-boots, bush hat and Union Flag tie, but most of the mixed crowd of all ages seemed well within normal operational parameters for the human race.
TFA does good work and - whether or not you decide to join - I commend its events to you. Now I am a Londoner again, I shall probably go to more of them myself.