Apr 24, 2007

Book Review - Political Corruption in Transition: A Skeptic’s Handbook

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Kotkin, Stephen and Sajó, András (editors)

Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002, 493 pages


The transition to market economies in Russia and Eastern Europe in the post-Soviet era has brought to light frequent charges of corruption, often instigated by persons representing foreign businesses. Political Corruption in Transition is a collection of essays on corruption in Russia and, especially, the former Soviet satellite states in East Central Europe. The editors assembled the writings of scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives in an effort to contextualize and comprehend corruption in its various guises.

An introductory essay by editor Sajó challenged Western readers to remove preconceptions about the nature of corruption, noting that “experts will never agree on any single definition.” What is perceived by some as contemporary corruption in Eastern Europe, the author argued, owes much to the clientelism that evolved under the previous communist nomenklatura, and actions that some consider to be corrupt are merely a continuation of formerly acceptable practices. Sajó noted that corruption – as defined in Western terms that evolved under the rule of law – is a structural phenomenon as opposed to the moral failings of individuals, and he described corruption as “the natural consequence of power in a clientelistic regime.” Moreover, argued Sajó, the civil servants of many post-Communist states are underpaid, increasing the likelihood that they will extort bribes, and supervisory personnel often place pressure on their subordinates to funnel revenue upwards in the hierarchical structure in what the author described as “shared extorted ransom.” Finally, Sajó held that weak states dominated by post-totalitarian bureaucracies perpetuate patterns of corruption, and that this type of “corruption facilitating, decision-making system is deliberately maintained” in order to continue the practice of “stealing the state,” a euphemism for using state power for private benefit.

Jacobs examined the efficacy of creating anti-corruption systems, noting that such efforts to reduce corruption have the ironic effect of reinforcing the very bureaucracy they were designed to reign in. He noted that a political system that is “hypersensitive to corruption” can produce a “dispirited and alienated citizenry” in much the same manner as a truly corrupt system. In addition, the author argued that the costs of implementing anti-corruption strategies might actually be greater than the corruption being attacked, and that anti-corruption efforts ca actually create less effective and efficient government. As a result, states must determine what the author termed as an “optimal level of corruption,” where the goal is to identify the most costly forms of corruption and the most cost-effective means of battling corruption.

Hutchcroft examined the usefulness of applying lessons to post-Communist governments that have been learned from studying corruption in developing nations. He identified a difficult paradox that exists in many weak states: the strong judicial, political, and administrative necessary to create and perpetuate market economies are often “themselves permeated by a market mentality,” and Hutchcroft added that “it is no boast, in other words, for a country to have ‘the best judiciary that money can buy.’” Moreover, argued the author, some forms of corruption actually promote economic development by increasing the responsiveness of civil servants, noting previous research that found that “speed payments” (payments that expedite a decision without influencing government policy) may actually improve efficiency. Hutchcroft also provided an intriguing quote from Samuel P. Huntington on the contradictions of corruption:
In terms of economic growth, the only thing worse than a society with a rigid, overcentralized, dishonest bureaucracy is one with a rigid, overcentralized honest bureaucracy.
Blankenburg examined the phenomena of what he termed the “scandal industry” as a contributing factor in popular perception of corruption in European politics. The author noted that existing traditions of clientelism allowed the types of bribery found in such examples as the various Lockheed scandals, and that Newsweek magazine – and its global coverage of the Lockheed scandals – brought established clientelistic behaviors into public view, ultimately destroying political regimes in Italy, Japan, and the Netherlands.

One of the primary reasons for the rise of the scandal industry, argued Blankenburg, was the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which ended an era of anti-Communist cooperation among bourgeois political parties that turned former allies into adversaries. In addition, the author noted the growth of full-time investigative teams at many leading periodicals and broadcast media, with the simultaneous increase in competition between media outlets “to chase ever-new sensations,” and Blankenburg argued that globalization increased the pressure on governments to eliminate protectionist policies that often took the form of stable clientelism. Finally, the author maintained that the emergence of independent prosecutors and investigative judges created bureaucratic mechanisms not beholden to established clientele structures, and that these autonomous political actors often used anti-corruption investigations to further their own political aims.

Boris Berezovsky, poster-child of Russian corruptionBoris Berezovsky, poster-child of Russian corruption

Post-Soviet Russia is often cited by pundits as an example of the excesses of bureaucratic corruption, and certainly the presence and influence of such dubious characters as Boris Berezovsky and Sergey Mikhaylov in Russian politics does little to dissuade observers of this notion. Coulloudon, however, argued that a post-Communist state such as the Russian Federation actually suffers from the emergence of high-profile scandals:
The general argument is that the central Russian State – as weak as it is – provides a favorable background for nepotism, embezzlement, and abuses of power. Moreover, anticorruption campaigns generated in this institutional environment undermine the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the population and among officials. Such campaigns create a profound problem of confidence in the state structures and thus further weaken the capacity of the state, creating a vicious cycle.
Coulloudon noted the existence of widespread corruption in the last decades of the Soviet Union, and argued that this institutionalized corruption simply took new forms in the transition to a market economy in Russia. Industrial managers in the Soviet system, argued the author, had one overriding goal, which was to fullfill at any cost their portion of the five-year plans developed by state and party officials. Meeting production quotas meant that managers had to barter with other producers, purchase supplies on the black market, or even falsify output statistics to demonstrate their effectiveness. In addition, managers often developed “dead souls” – ficititious workers on the payroll lists of factories – who served to provide the capital needed to bribe regional officials or purchase items from the black market. Coulloudon argued that - despite the transition to a market economy - the post-Soviet government of Russia maintains three particular aspects “inherited from the Societ past,” including an “overpowerful executive branch; elite recruitment through cooptation; and an extremely secretive decision-making process.” These characteristics create an environment ripe for bribery, lawbreaking, and tax evasion in post-Soviet Russia.

Szilágyi analyzed a new form of corruption that has been especially prevalent in post-Communist Russia, which is the manifestation of the phenomenon known as kompromat (“compromising materials”). The use of kompromat is a means of blackmailing political opponents with the understood threat that public knowledge of such damaging material would destroy an individual or even bring that person before criminal charges; the insidious nature of kompromat reflects the fact that “compromising material” need not even be truthful, so long as it accomplishes the goal of political annhilation of opponents. Szilágyi provided an example of kompromat in action in which Russian Prime Minister Yvgeny Primakov was attacked by Boris Berezovsky through his media holdings. Primakov once posed for a photograph holding a bazooka at a Russian military exhibition, and after the motorcade of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was attacked by bazooka-wielding assasins, Berezovsky’s television and newspaper outlets broadcast the salacious charge that “Primakov ordered the attack on Shevardnadze” while providing the unrelated picture of Primakov with a bazooka.

One of the strengths of this collection of essays is the interdisciplinary experience of the authors, who hail from such fields as sociology, political science, history, and law. The editors provided detailed endnotes and a lengthy bibliography for further study, and there are a number of useful charts and graphs throughout the text. Readers – especially those whose knowledge of Eastern Europe and Russia are limited to occasional media reports – are forced to come to terms with their previous assumptions and biases about the nature of corruption and the importance of a contextual perspective, and one leaves this text with more questions than answers with regard to corruption in the post-Communist era. Subtitled The Sceptic’s Handbook, this text compels readers to question defintions of corruption, the actual prevalence of corruption in post-Communist regimes, and about the effects of a scandal industry in “creating” corruption where none may have previously been perceived.

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