IMPLICATIONS: It is not only that large-scale corruption undermines both the domestic and international legitimacy of the regime in question, or its economic health. Nor is corruption’s harm limited to the fact that it replaces politics with cronyism, patronage, criminality, and often a large degree of violence as has been the case throughout the entire post-Soviet space. Not only is the law and the rule of law made a mockery by this spectacle, the government’s ability simply to administer the country or to defend itself also comes into question. Thus throughout the Chechen war, the rebels have gotten their weapons from Russian soldiers who are themselves the victims of unpunished corruption and therefore replicate this kind of anomic behavior as well. Moreover, the resources with which to reconstruct Chechnya or to govern other parts of Russia or other former Soviet republics are lacking because they have long since been stolen and remain unaccounted for. Official corruption on a large scale undoubtedly is responsible for all these pathologies. But in the Central Asian and South Caucasian instances, there is another aspect to the revelation of large-scale corruption which could prove of consequence and which has hitherto been overlooked. Because these regimes are based on corruption, when a succession comes, candidates will be evaluated on the basis of whether or not they can keep the “gravy train” flowing, much more than any concept of national interest. Therefore revelations of corruption in western media or courts will contribute to eroding the legitimacy of the Karimov, Aliyev, and Nazarbayev families, and they will raise doubts among other members of the elite in these countries, and perhaps similarly in other countries as well, as to the viability of letting them continue to run the show. Where corrupt elite factions are in fact ruling the country, their paramount concern is the stability of their “rents”. If that is called into question, the risk is apparent that they will resort to violence. The succession to Boris Yeltsin in 1999 was clearly a case in point because his “family” launched a war against Chechnya, among other reasons, to secure their hold on official largesse and corruption. Therefore in Central Asia and the Caucasus, further public revelations about the extent of official corruption in the family of the ruling class can indeed trigger elite instability, popular unrest, or both. In either case, it would not be surprising to find an outbreak of political violence revolving around competing claims to power and thus to wealth. Such manifestations can only further destabilize and imperil weak states as it is unlikely that this political violence can be confined to one state. Again, Chechnya is a case in point, as it has repeatedly threatened to engulf Georgia as well.
CONCLUSIONS: Undoubtedly corruption charges will be denied or rebutted as being political. And indeed, the truth of accusations should not be taken for granted, given that there are foreign communities, either of exiles or of NGOs, who have an interest in discrediting the regimes accused of corruption. But these charges are political in a deeper and more dangerous sense because they can contribute to the further degradation of political life in their host countries as elites and/or masses are moved to fight more openly and therefore more violently for power and access to the spoils thereof. Ironically, the charges of corruption, however well-founded they may be, may not lead to better governance in the short term but to something worse or at least to a continuation of the same phenomenon – albeit with different players. Since corruption is endemic to politics everywhere, it would be naive to imagine it could be rooted out of new states with no tradition of the rule of law, public service, or the national interest. Yet the campaign to expose large-scale official malfeasance must go on lest it lead to a failing state, an all too likely a phenomenon as Africa’s experience indicates. The dilemma for those who would expose this corruption then becomes multiple: what do they achieve by doing so, and can they put in place remedies and people who will not lead the next generation of reformers to re-enact the same drama a second time or who will not lead the post-Soviet regimes into the dead end so visible across so much of Africa?
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed in this article do not in any way represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department or Government.