Kyrgyzstan’s new government has referred to corruption as the country’s most pressing problem, indicating the need to prioritize anti-corruption reforms. A new Anti-Corruption Agency has been established within the State Committee for National Security to lead the work. Criminal cases were recently initiated against two members of parliament as well as a minister, raising the question of whether a serious fight against corruption has finally begun in the country. Whether these moves constitute the beginning of a new era in Kyrgyzstan’s political system remains an open question given the fact that corruption is firmly entrenched in the country’s system of governance and can only be curtailed through a comprehensive overhaul of this system.
BACKGOUND: Since taking office, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambaev has repeatedly singled out corruption as the country’s major problem, arguing that fighting it must be made a top priority. Some high level officials were arrested in recent weeks, most notably MP and former Bishkek Mayor Nariman Tuleev, Kyrgyzstan’s Minister of Social Development Ravshan Sabirov and the longstanding Bakiev-era Minister of Transport and current MP, Nurlan Sulaimanov. Previous arrests include the deputy general director of the National Electric Grid as well as top directors in Kyrgyzstan’s largest mobile operator MegaCom. The main force behind these arrests is the new Anti-Corruption Service of the State Committee of National Security, established by presidential decree in December 2011.
These events have raised the question of whether the country is finally seeing the start of a serious effort to eliminate corruption. So far, experts and the general public remain unconvinced. Kyrgyzstan has since independence repeatedly initiated anti-corruption programs, but these have merely been formal, declarative and selectively applied to target rivals to the presidents. This has fed skepticism and cynicism among the public who naturally ask themselves why they should believe things to be different this time around.
Kyrgyzstan has for a long time been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Practices of corruption connote to more than corruption, for they are a method of governance as well as defining the way the state and its citizens interact. While embedded in some cultural practices, the basic logic of corruption in Kyrgyzstan is rather straightforward and rational: it is organized as a pyramid; informal payments are passed upward in the organizational hierarchy. In this system, there is a fusion of political power and economic wealth. The most successful business strategy is not to compete on a free market, but to secure access to the state budget and political resources.
Although many politicians have come from the business sector, once they enter the political realm it is either in order to get rich or to protect wealth already acquired. Needless to say, this has had negative consequences for the development of sound economic policies and led to an increasingly unfavorable business climate. Moreover, the state provides public goods only at a very low level as the system of public service delivery essentially has turned into a private market for corrupt informal transactions. According to government data more than 130 billion Kyrgyz soms (ca. US$ 3 billion) circulate in the shadow economy annually, feeding public officials. Put into perspective, the country’s GDP in 2010 was estimated to US$ 5 billion.
IMPLICATIONS: Against this backdrop, how can corruption possibly be curbed when in fact it amounts to an informal system of governance? Let us discuss some of the most frequently suggested cures in the light of the current situation.
First, there is the idea that democracy will curb corruption. Indeed, many observers have hopes that the bold and laudable introduction of real political competition under free elections in Kyrgyzstan since 2010 will, almost like an invisible hand, also lead to good governance, reduced corruption and increased political legitimacy. Yet, democratization alone cannot make a difference in Kyrgyzstan. First of all, the Kyrgyz parliament manifests a complete lack of unity and continuity; it is riddled with inter-business rivalries, regional divisions and corruption. Legislation is highly inconsistent; certain positive initiatives are completely contradicted in spirit by other pieces of legislation.
Furthermore, the assumption that corrupt leaders will be voted out of office in elections, while intuitively appealing, is not strongly supported. Research has shown that corrupt leaders are not severely punished at the polls and, indeed, often stand good chances of being re-elected. In a corrupt system, the reason for this is exactly that these politicians possess the skills necessary to make things happen, including providing some services to their constituencies.
Second, can anti-corruption programs advanced by international donors in Kyrgyzstan help the country move away from corruption? The international consensus on anti-corruption work follows a gradual approach, focused on increasing the costs of corrupt behavior within the existing system. By removing corruption in some spheres, these changes may later spill over to other spheres in a somewhat technical manner. However, for the purpose of significantly reducing corruption in a situation where it is endemic, this method has not been very successful either in Kyrgyzstan or anywhere else in the world. Increasing the cost of violating rules does not reflect the magnitude of the problem in societies where these “violations” are the rules of the game.
A third possibility is to use a strong, centralized strategy, like the one successfully developed by the Georgian political leadership after the Rose Revolution in 2003, and from which several Kyrgyz politicians have recently looked for inspiration. The Georgian success story rests on two key pillars: a strongly centralized presidential system and a frontal attack on corrupt state structures. However, there are reasons to doubt the feasibility of this approach in Kyrgyzstan. To start with, after the last revolution in 2010, Kyrgyzstan opted for replacing a presidential system with a mixed presidential-parliamentary constitution, which effectively rules out the possibility of a small united political elite pushing through reforms very quickly. Moreover, many of the measures adopted in Georgia were extraordinarily aggressive, including the complete disbandment of several state organs. In light of Kyrgyzstan’s recent track record of permanent political, economic and social instability, a frontal approach must therefore be considered a high risk endeavor.
In order to attain sustainable results, Kyrgyzstan’s corruption problem needs to be attacked in a more indirect manner by undertaking broad institutional reforms that decisively alter the way the state is organized and how it interacts with its citizens. What must be accomplished in Kyrgyzstan is nothing short of a fundamental change in the entire idea of what it means to be a politician or civil servant, as well as drawing a clear line between politics and bureaucracy. Exactly how such fundamental changes may come about remains an open question, but the solution can hardly amount to anything less than a thorough reform of the entire state apparatus. Given that the Kyrgyz state since independence is best characterized as a big, weak state in which entire ministries are informally privatized by top officials; the state must be downsized and laws and procedures simplified in order to alter the current situation where public officials from top to bottom are able to sell goods and services.
CONCLUSIONS: Corruption is fundamentally a political issue and it is therefore unrealistic to believe that an active civil society, a free media or a special anti-corruption service can take on more than a complementary role in fighting it, especially when it is as systemic as in Kyrgyzstan. Promoting the establishment of a few watchdogs for controlling corruption – whether the Ombudsman’s office, an anti-corruption agency or an independent Drug Control Agency as tried in Central Asia – have not produced tangible results as they themselves have either become tangled up in the corrupt environment or isolated islands unable to produce any change in the general system. Thus, when corruption is the method of governance, reforms must be much more fundamental than usually assumed. Nonetheless, if to start somewhere, the most classical state functions – law and order and revenue collection – must be restored before any active public policy programs can meaningfully be undertaken.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Johan Engvall is a research fellow of CACI-SRSP and a post-doctoral researcher at Uppsala Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author, most recently, of the Silk Road Paper Against the Grain: How Georgia Fought Corruption and What It Means, published in September 2012.