In post-communist states, political parties had lots of incentives to “hollow out” the state. The bureaucracy had all the resources and new political parties needed those resources to enact policies (not to mention enrich themselves). There was also a tradition of party control of the state – they didn’t have a cadre of professional bureaucrats to build off of. In that environment, the norm was for politicians to exploit state resources for themselves – whether that meant ensuring privatized companies were purchased by allies or placing loyalists in key positions in the bureaucracy.
Political science has primarily focused on competition as the main cause of the professionalization of state bureaucracies (and decline of corruption). For example, Anna Grzymala-Busse, in her book Rebuilding Leviathan, argues that political parties are less likely to use state resources for their own gain when there is a genuinely competitive political system.
Grzymala-Busse cites three mechanisms for how this worked – moderation, anticipation, and cooptation. Competitive oppositions enhance government transparency – they can criticize the ruling party, which encourages it to avoid unpopular practices (like corruption). Ruling parties in competitive systems are also fully aware that they could lose power in the next election, which means they are more likely to place constraints on what any party in power can do. They might want to place loyalists in key positions across the bureaucracy, but they really don’t want the opposition to do the same thing. They therefore are more likely to tie the hands of anyone in power from hollowing out the state, passing anti-corruption laws and encouraging an independent, professional civil service. Finally, when parties need to share power to win an election, they are less able to direct all state resources to a single party. FYI, I don’t find this part of her argument very convincing – I think logrolling (seeking more benefits for everyone) rather than constraint is the more likely outcome.
Anyway, combined, this means that ruling parties in systems with genuine competition are both less able to hollow out the state, and less interested in doing so.
A quick side note, in post-communist states, competition often meant having a strong, but reformed communist party. If the communist party lost a country’s first free and fair elections and then reformed to compete effectively in elections, they often formed the only real opposition in a country. Other parties just weren’t organized enough to be effective. We’ll talk more about this later in the semester, but it is ironic that communist parties ended up being important to democracy. What is essential though was that there was an early transfer of power between parties.
For example, in Lithuania, the former Communist party won the 1992 elections, but was followed by a conservative coalition in the 1996 elections. Lithuania was among the faster movers on civil service reform, passing things like laws creating an ombudsman and audit office in the early 1990s.
This argument is not unique to the former Soviet world. Martin Shefter, in his book Political Parties and the State, describes the emergence of a professional civil service in the United States in very similar terms. Clientelistic political parties were the norm in the United States in the 1800s (think political machines like Tammany Hall or parties giving positions in the post office to loyalists). In the US, the source of competition was the regional distribution and diversity of economic interests. Federalism allowed different parties to gain power in different areas, eventually leading to changes in power at the national level. The mechanism creating a professional bureaucracy, though, is the same. Parties agreed to limit influence over the bureaucracy not out of an abstract desire to improve democracy, but in order limit the ability of their opponents to make political appointments in the future.
A notable exception to the idea that competition reduces corruption can be found in Kyrgyzstan. While Kyrgyzstan marketed itself as the most democratic and open state in Central Asia in the 1990s and 2000s, their very fluid party system did not represent real competition. Changes in power mostly came about after mass political protest, including the 2005 Tulip Revolution that ousted a former communist president, another revolution in 2010 that ousted his successor, and violent 2020 protests that led to the resignation of a different former communist president. Despite multiple transitions, buying positions in the civil service remains fundamental to the political system and corruption remains rampant.
Another big limitation of this theory is that it applies only to democracies – countries where there is actual competition for power. Little research has been done on why dictatorships implement bureaucratic reforms. To provide some insight on this issue, I want to introduce a theory of general institutional reform developed by James Mahoney and Kathleen Thelen. They classify institutional reforms into four groups:
- Displacement – where old rules or institutions are eliminated and new ones put in place
- Layering – when new institutions are put in place in parallel to old institutions
- Drift – when institutions change only in response to outside pressures
- Conversion – strategic reform of existing institutions to have them address new challenges
The three countries of the South Caucasus provide interesting examples of these types of reforms.
In Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili instituted some of the region’s most effective anti-corruption reforms in the mid 2000s. These were dramatic in scope – eliminating agencies (for example, firing all employees of the Ministry of Education) and increasing enforcement. They largely eliminated petty corruption, although Georgia still has problems with high-level corruption.
Azerbaijan took a different path, creating parallel institutions for key government functions. President Aliev kept all existing bureaucratic agencies and employees but also created new public-private partnerships to handle essential services. This streamlined things liked getting a passport or driver’s license, reducing public dissatisfaction, without disruption the power structures represented in the old bureaucracy.
Armenia is a case of institutional drift. Civil service reforms were enacted gradually over the years, largely in response to international pressure or linkage to economic aid. No major reforms were implemented, and a lack of scrutiny on the government was justified on national security grounds. Contrary to theories that war leads to state development, in this case, conflict led to a “rally around the flag effect,” justifying corrupt practices so long as they defended the nation. Armenia’s loss in skirmishes with Azerbaijan in 2016 and the 2020 war have torn away this justification and we may see faster reform in the future.
Grzymala-Busse, Anna. 2007. Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Exploitation in Post-Communist Democracies. Cambridge University Press.
Mahoney, James and Kathleen Thelen, eds. 2009. Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power. Cambridge University Press.
Shefter, Martin. 1993. Political parties and the state: The American historical experience. Princeton University Press.