Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go: Russian and Kazakh Roads to Sectoral and Political Corruption

By Henderson, Keith E. | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go: Russian and Kazakh Roads to Sectoral and Political Corruption


Henderson, Keith E., Demokratizatsiya


The law is like a horse cart; it will go whichever way you turn it.

--Russian proverb

In 1997, Elena Bonner, human rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, made an observation that in many respects sums up the current state of affairs in Russia and many other countries of the former Soviet Union: "The intelligentsia seems to have abandoned its historic calling of compassion and assistance in the favor of grabbing crumbs dropped by the corrupt and powerful."(1)

In this article, I focus on the causes of systemic corruption in Russia, Kazakhstan, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union and analyze how this omnipresent phenomenon makes many of the reforms of the last decade unsustainable, unimplementable, and unenforceable. With the tenth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR fast approaching, the region is at a critical point. The roads those countries choose today will affect the region's and the globe's political and economic future for decades. Although the region encompassing the former Soviet Union is vast and diverse, the experiences of attempted reforms in two of the largest and wealthiest countries, Russia and Kazakhstan, vividly illustrate the myriad barriers to progress. The complexity and interconnectedness of the problems in the two countries illuminate the systemic corruption that is the region's most serious problem.

My analysis shows two categories of countries or subregions at different stages of economic and political development. The first category includes Russia, Moldova, Georgia, and Armenia. Each of those countries has made significant progress in a relatively short time. They now can generally be viewed as quasidemocratic market societies, but they are only halfway home. The second category of countries includes Belarus, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Those countries are still ruled by authoritarian leaders and have a long way to go before they can begin their democratic journey. The main conclusion drawn from the analysis is that until political and economic systemic corruption is addressed in a holistic manner, countries in the region will not become stable, market-based democracies and reforms will not be enforceable or sustainable. Corrupt informal networks or alliances involving policymakers, oligarchs, and law enforcement and security officers represent the biggest hurdle to enforcing reforms and developing the rule of law in the region.

An analysis of the causes and consequences of corruption in Russia and Kazakhstan is relevant, because their collective economic and political future has important regional and global ramifications. Russia and Kazakhstan's 200 million-plus well-educated people and their vast natural resources are important strategic assets. However, for the people in the region to realize their potential, they must move from a society ruled by men to one of laws. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the most important issue confronting the international community from a security, economic, or democratic perspective is whether the rule of law will become globalized. Russia and Kazakhstan have an important role to play in that evolving process.

The Commonwealth of Independent State (CIS) countries--Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Belarus--are still struggling to effect fundamental reforms in a monopolistic political and economic environment filled with secrecy, historical social undercurrents, and unusual power linkages. Both the pre- and post-Soviet governing networks at the country and regional levels depend on systemic corruption and secrecy for their very existence.

In Freedom House's 1998 Nations in Transit, journalist Stephen Handelman commented: "Corruption has replaced the command economy as the region's most conspicuous, and oppressive, feature. …

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Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go: Russian and Kazakh Roads to Sectoral and Political Corruption
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