In this work based on a fieldwork conducted in Georgia (in 1998-9, under Shevardnadze) and Armenia (in 2003, under Kotcharian) in the framework of the Civic Education Project, Chr. H. Stefes, Assistant Professor of Comparative European and Post-Soviet Studies at the Department for Political Science of the University of Colorado at Denver, deals with economic and political transitions in post-Soviet Eurasian states by focusing on corruption issues.
Unlike some “transionalist” scholars who consider corruption an expression of something that went wrong during the transitional process, Chr. Sfefes rightfully argues that corruption should be put at the centre of analysis, recalling that it was a legacy of communist rule when networks of corruption and informal economy had permeated the Soviet state and party structure. As Chr. Stefes has observed on the field, these networks have survived the upheavals of the early 1990s and adjusted to the new order, contributing towards undesirable outcomes such as imperfect market economies and the creation of semi-autocratic regimes. The main assumption of the book is that extent of damage depends on the amount of control that the central government exerts over corrupted system, and that control is a function of the mode of post-Soviet transition. Thus, Armenia and Georgia, the case studies of the book, illustrate two divergent trajectories. As the author sums it up, in the case of Georgia the tumultuous transitions that created a temporary vacuum of political authority caused a rapid and lasting decentralisation of systemic corruption, with the emergence of separate fiefdoms within the central government and regional administration, which lead to economic stagnation and political instability, culminating in the 2003 Rose Revolution. In contrast, in Armenia, the centralised system of corruption has stabilised both the economy and the state, but fostered the emergence of a plutocratic regime.
In his conclusion, the author wonders whether his theoretical model assertion ― viz., the link between the evolution of systemic corruption inherited from the Soviet era with the goals and political capacity of the new leaderships, which in turn have been a function of the mode of transition and transfer of political authority ― is relevant to other successor states of the former Soviet Union. He argues that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are close to the Armenian case, while Russia and Azerbaijan resemble the Georgian one, as they also experienced a tumultuous transition, although Azerbaijan does not fit the model insofar as systemic corruption was rapidly re-centralised under Heydar Aliev. Chr. Stefes acknowledges the limit of his model that “can probably not account for the political and economic development in rentier states” whose “leadership can rely on vast natural resources to buy political loyalty and create a stable, albeit undemocratic regime.” Yet he thinks that his model might explain the developments of those successor states that have undergone a second transition like Kyrgyzstan, where a “decentralisation of the corrupt system that developed under Akaev presents a formidable obstacle to the establishment of a strong state apparatus with economic consequences that cannot be but disastrous.”
The book provides a bunch of data and stimulating and thorough insights, with a much welcomed break from the usual transitionalist analysis. The comparative approach confirms the general tendency to divergent post-Soviet trajectories of new independent states and the impact of specific national history that was sometimes denied ― or was less perceptible ― after the fall of the Soviet regime which created some kind of standardisation. The comparison would have been even more interesting if it was not only pointing to “Asiatic” states, including Russia, and extended to other “European” states in order to avoid a neo-orientalistic view, excluding for instance the Baltic republics where, eager to join the “club of Western democracies and market economies [. . .], the new élite, enjoying widespread popular support, have therefore fought a determined battle against corruption,” supposedly with success, “despite some setbacks.” Thus, if one can share the general idea that “democratic institutions that are parachuted among a highly corrupt country are unlikely to build strong roots,” the absence of a more global comparison with other countries of the “despotic” and “backward” East as well as of the “democratic” and developed West which are not always safe from the same phenomena albeit a different (Italy, for instance?) would have open way to a more general discussion, built not only on political science theories but also on national and international history, anthropology, sociology, etc.