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The Owl in the Olive Tree | March 20, 2020

Casualties of Good Governance: How Corruption Helps Ordinary Citizens in Autocracies

By Marina Zaloznaya

In forty-eight countries around the world—most of which are poor and non-democratic—at least a quarter of citizens report giving bribes to doctors, teachers, policemen, and other public officials in exchange for services (Transparency International 2019). To decrease the documented negative effects of such widespread bureaucratic corruption on economic and political health of these societies, intergovernmental organizations, anti-corruption NGOs, and individual Western governments spend millions of dollars on reforming their public sectors. These reforms, however, may harm ordinary citizens of authoritarian regimes because public sector corruption sustains unique spaces of freedom, where citizens can collaborate and exchange resources outside of the purview of an oppressive state.

Typically, reforms targeting bureaucratic corruption reflect a widely accepted maxim in the Western policy circles: corruption grows with monopoly and discretion and diminishes with accountability of public officials (Klitgaard 1988). Thus, the first objective of such initiatives is to dissolve monopolies in public services and regulatory regimes (e.g., systems of procurement and licensing) through decentralization and a separation of power. Their second objective is to increase accountability of officials through organizational checks and balances, specialized law enforcement institutions, and independent judiciaries (e.g., Uberti 2015).

Critics point out that, while well-intended, such “good governance” initiatives often suffer from distorted and incomplete implementation because they are overly-ambitious and contextually (locally and culturally) insensitive (e.g., Grindle 2004). In non-democracies, for instance, the objectives of decreased discretion and increased accountability, time and again, have provided a facade for political persecutions and clampdowns on civil liberties (e.g., Rogov 2018).  

In contrast to these arguments, the analyses I conducted with Freda Lynn on new survey data from Russia suggest that the very intention of such reforms may be misguided. Even when implemented properly and fully, in non-democracies they risk undermining the very limited freedoms that ordinary citizens are able to enjoy. Below, I highlight three of our findings that support this argument and suggest that, in the short run, the international community should promote decriminalization of bureaucratic corruption in authoritarian-leaning states.

Bureaucratic Corruption Fosters Economic Agency
Typically, scholars of post-socialist countries assume that local citizens turn to bribery because public services are unavailable to them through legitimate mechanisms (e.g., McMann 2015).  Yet, for countries like China and Russia, this view is outdated: while corruption may have offered the only way to get services in inefficient, centrally planned economies of the communist era, today, booming private markets in both countries supply a wide variety of consumer options at different price points. Moreover, the public sectors of Russia and China have largely regained their functionality since the fall of socialism. Even when free services are inconvenient or of less-than-stellar quality, they are, indeed, available to patrons of public hospitals, schools, Department of Motor Vehicles, and other bureaucracies (Garrels 2016; Hendley 2017).

In 2018, William Reisinger, Wenfang Tang, and I administered a national representative survey of over two thousand Russian adults to assess their engagement in bureaucratic corruption. These data revealed that many more Russians see bureaucratic bribes as a vehicle for securing premium public services (46 percent) than for satisfying their basic consumer needs (22 percent). Moreover, the majority of Russians who reported personally bribing officials in education, healthcare, and law enforcement, acknowledged receiving improved, better-than-basic services. In exchange for bribes, they gained access to more modern equipment, shorter wait times, and friendlier and more experienced providers. These results, then, suggest that public sector corruption builds a system of exchange outside of the purview of the Russian state, allowing ordinary citizens to control their experiences in bureaucracies and increasing their autonomy vis-à-vis an unresponsive government.

Bureaucratic Corruption Builds Infrastructure for Civil Society
Analyses of our data also reveal that bureaucratic corruption fosters a unique kind of social connectivity, which, counterintuitively, promotes civic behavior among ordinary Russians.  Although corruption is typically billed as destructive to civil society at the aggregate level, the actual practice of informal transactions, by its very nature, weaves a layer of exchange infrastructure into a collective’s social fabric. Using egocentric network data from our survey, we establish that, for ordinary Russians, participation in bureaucratic corruption is facilitated by personal ties that are simultaneously outward-oriented and strong. As it happens, such networks take ordinary citizens outside the insular worlds of their families, expose them to the interests of the community, and provide them with resources to push back against an oppressive regime. Specifically, we find that social networks that facilitate corruption are more likely than other ties to be located outside of respondents’ immediate kin and to have strong bridging potential. We confirm the civic effects of belonging to such networks by showing that Russians who partake in bureaucratic corruption are significantly more likely than their compatriots to engage in civic behaviors. Bribe-givers consume roughly 23 percent more information about politics; are twice as likely to share their views on social media; 1.8 times more likely to sign a petition; and roughly 45 percent more likely to vote in a presidential election than Russians who do not give bribes.

In sum, bureaucratic corruption creates and sustains connections across social cleavages whereby ordinary citizens interact, collaborate, and organize outside of the state-controlled public arena. In fostering social connectivity favorable to active citizenship, corruption networks appear to offer an imperfect yet real alternative to a formal civil society in a context where none is allowed to exist.

Bureaucratic Corruption Cuts across Typical Axes of Disadvantage
Since corruption typically benefits a select few at the expense of entire communities, one urgent concern is that unchecked bureaucratic corruption may exacerbate social inequality. In regard to petty malfeasance in Russia’s public sector, however, our data suggest otherwise. While citizens’ likelihood of benefitting from corruption is, indeed, positively associated with their income, there is another predictor that remains significant after controlling for respondents’ socio-economic status: their embeddedness in corruption-facilitating networks. Not only do we find that as much as a half of Russians are plugged into such networks, but the likelihood of embeddedness does not vary along the typical axes of social stratification, such as gender, education, employment status, and income.

In other words, in present-day Russia, there are two ways to benefit from corruption—one is to be affluent and the other one is to be “plugged in”. Embeddedness, then, allows for the usually disadvantaged strata of the population to share in the corruption spoils. These findings resonate with qualitative reports from the region that corruption networks, often anchored by women, are prevalent in rural areas and entail bribes that range from a dozen of eggs to thousands of dollars (e.g. Morris and Polese 2016; Zaloznaya 2017).

The Implications for Anti-Corruption Policy
Taken together, our findings suggest that ties that enable Russians to benefit from corruption cut through social layers and cleavages, uniting citizens in, possibly, the most efficacious and autonomous associations that can exist in present-day authoritarian Russia. Effective reforms of the public sector, therefore, risk eradicating the very limited freedoms that ordinary Russians actually have under Putin’s authoritarian rule.

Yet, substantial long-term harms of corruption make leaving it unchecked an unattractive alternative. In pondering what should be done, it is important to keep in mind that consequences of public sector corruption are context specific. It is only in the absence of effective legitimate alternatives that petty bribery is beneficial. The key to a non-damaging and socially responsible anti-corruption effort may, therefore, lie in sequencing: certain political and economic freedoms must be established prior to public sector reforms. While threatening to local elites and unpopular among Western reformers, initiatives targeting high-level corruption in government and business are not only unavoidable but should constitute the first step on the anti-corruption agenda. In reference to corruption, Russians often say that “fish rots from the head”. Our data suggest that it is from the head that the rot should also be stopped.

In the meantime, policymakers could also focus on measures that preserve citizen autonomy generated by bureaucratic corruption, while limiting its negative externalities. One such measure is decriminalization of the direct-exchange corruption markets in the public sector. Short of full legalization, decriminalization could help institutionalize free exchanges between officials and clients while also preserving the “third place” (Odenburg 2001) where citizens can collaborate without surveillance by the state.  Lowering the risks of corruption through decriminalization will further equalize access to its benefits and encourage bureaucrats to offer improved services for smaller fees. Lastly, decriminalization will diminish the potential for excessive punitiveness and surveillance in the name of anti-corruptionism, thereby decreasing the opportunities for abuse by local politicians.

Associated Reading
Garrels, Anne. 2016. Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia. New York: Macmillan.
Grindle, Merilee S. 2004. Good Enough Governance: Poverty Reduction and Reform in Developing Countries. Governance. 17(4): 525-548.
Hendley, Kathryn. 2017. Everyday Law in Russia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Klitgaard, Robert. 1988. Controlling Corruption. Berkeley: University of California Press.
McMann, Kelly M. 2015. Corruption as a Last Resort: Adapting to the Market in Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Morris, Jeremy, and Abel Polese. 2016. Informal Health and Education Sector Payments in Russian and Ukrainian Cities: Structuring Welfare from Below. European Urban and Regional Studies 23(3): 481-496.
Rogov, Kirill. 2018. The Art of Coercion: Repressions and Repressiveness in Putin’s Russia. Russian Politics 3(2): 151-174.
Transparency International. 2019. Global Corruption Barometer. Available online at
Uberti, Luca J. 2016. Can Institutional Reforms Reduce Corruption? Economic Theory and Patron–Client Politics in Developing Countries. Development and Change 47(2): 317-345.
Zaloznaya, Marina. 2017. The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marina Zaloznaya is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Iowa. She is the author of The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe.

Associated Minerva Project
Informal Economies and Societal Stability in China and Russia

Supporting Service Agency
Army Research Office

Nota Bene
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