Corruption as a Pan-Cultural Phenomenon: An Empirical Study in Countries at Opposite Ends of the Former Soviet Empire

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

A decade ago, corruption was not a proper subject for polite scholars or policymakers.1 Today, the creation of and comment on anti-corruption regimes is a growth industry.2 Anti-corruption regimes exist at the global level and in almost every region and grouping of countries.3

Anti-corruption regimes share several structural characteristics. Most approach corruption as a pan-cultural phenomenon, and therefore most simply assume a shared set of perceptions about corruption.4 Most regimes then go on to require that all parties criminalize this behavior.

Scholarly commentary on these legal regimes, on the other hand, is not uniform. Some scholars applaud international coordination as necessary to combat a phenomenon that does not confine itself within borders,5 while some condemn it as morally imperialistic and an elitist intrusion into the affairs of other countries.6 Nonetheless, most legal scholarship on international corruption regimes does share at least one characteristic: it is theoretical and assumptive rather than empirical.7

International corruption regimes are legal constructs; evaluation of these constructs by legal scholars is critical. Evaluation, however, must be based on factual knowledge rather than assumption and supposition.8 The lack of empirical research, therefore, constitutes a serious gap in legal scholarship on an issue that is at the forefront of legal change in the world today.

This article seeks an empirical understanding of a basic question underlying international corruption regimes: do different cultures share an understanding of corruption? The authors of this paper administered a short questionnaire to similar sets of respondents in two different countries, Bulgaria and Mongolia, and conducted follow-up sessions with the respondents.9 The authors found that the respondents had strikingly similar attitudes towards, and understandings and perceptions of, corruption. While the data does not disprove a relativist position-that determination would require a comprehensive data set incorporating the entire world-it does lend support to those who suggest a shared understanding of corruption.

II. THE QUESTION

The foundational question examined in this paper is whether the perceptions and understandings of people in two different countries and cultures correspond or are different. A corollary of this question is whether empirical data on understandings and perceptions of corruption casts insights into theoretical discussions of corruption, as well as into the definition of corruption.

Empirical questions about the meaning of corruption are important for at least four reasons: 1) corruption is a serious issue that calls into question the efficacy of law and of social and economic systems; 2) changing international global regimes use shared meanings of corruption, which could result in the imposition of meanings of corruption on some cultures; 3) similarly, international financial organizations are attempting to deal with the issue of corruption in a systematic way; and 4) legal scholarship benefits from at least some level of empirical insight.

A. Corruption Is a Serious Issue

The damage engendered by corruption has been thoroughly explicated in the literature. Briefly, the literature states that corruption distorts economic decisions,10 impedes transnational commercial relationships,11 degrades bureaucratic systems,12 and severely corrodes social structures.13 One argument in favor of corruption depends on very particular circumstances: under conditions of authoritarian repression, internal corruption can facilitate the creation of channels through which goods and services reach people who do not have connections within the authoritarian regime.14

B. Changes in Global Regimes

At the global level, in April 2002 the United Nations mandated the drafting of the "United Nations Convention against Corruption. …