Does the US have vital security interests in Central Asia?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a conference in DC, presenting my work on military assistance to Central Asia. During the Q&A, all of the panelists were asked a question that roughly amounted to the following; If you had a minute with John Kerry, what would you tell him were the United States’ vital strategic interests in Central Asia? (I’m terrible at remembering what is said verbatim, so I’m probably getting the wording completely wrong, but that was the essence of the question.) As it happened, I went first. My response basically boiled down to stating that with the impending US departure from Afghanistan, the US had no vital security interests in the region. This turned out to be an unpopular position with the other panelists and with a few members of the audience (to the extent that it was mentioned — though not by name — at a different conference on Central Asia held the next day). So I thought it might be useful to write a short post here in an attempt to justify my position.

First of all, I should make clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that Central Asia would not benefit from US assistance. The region on the whole is deeply misgoverned and suffers from a great deal of poverty and repression. I’m all for rectifying that. I am also not saying that the US should completely withdraw from the region. There are various reasons, both humanitarian and strategic, for the US to continue to be involved in Central Asia. However, the question I was asked was neither about how Central Asia might benefit from US involvement nor about whether or not the US should remain involved. It was about what factors would justify a significant expenditure of US government resources on continued involvement in the region.

And I would argue, that there are no such factors, once our troops are out of Afghanistan. The US will continue to have a strategic interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not become a global center for anti-American extremists. But given the increasing likelihood that the US and Afghanistan will fail to reach a Status of Forces Agreement, it seems quite likely that this interest will have to be pursued without any US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This means that ensuring access for troops and supplies, the one overriding reason for continued US involvement in Central Asia over the last 12 years, will disappear once US troops depart. Anyone who thinks that the US would have been seriously engaged in Central Asia in recent years without the need for this access is kidding themselves.

There are other important strategic calculations for the US. Some would argue that it is important to counter Russian and Chinese expansion in the region. My response is that investing US resources in some kind of new Great Game in the region is both wrong-headed and impractical. Russia and China border on the region and have obvious economic and security interests there. On the practical side, the United States is far away. Its leaders have found the region difficult to get to and hard to understand. There’s just no way that it can compete with Russia and China in the region in any sustained way. But even if it could, I don’t think the zero-sum calculations inherent in the great game analogy are the right way to understand international affairs in general or developments in the region in particular. Rather than trying to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, it would make a lot more sense to work with them to promote security and development in Central Asia.

On the other side from the hard-nosed realists are folks who argue that US engagement in Central Asia is necessary in order to improve governance, human security and economic well-being for the people living in the region. I’m very much in favor of this happening, but I question whether the US government is the best positioned actor to carry out such activities. I’m all for engagement on the part of NGOs and international organizations dedicated to improving the well-being of Central Asians. But the track record of the US government in promoting good governance and economic development in Central Asia leaves a lot to be desired. Too often, development and democratization initiatives have been tied to other foreign policy considerations or have taken a back seat to the security needs of the moment. As a result, US initiatives in this area may not be fully trusted at the local level. And there is also the question of sustainability, given the current distaste in Washington for foreign assistance that is not explicitly tied to hard security considerations. For these reasons, it seems to me that development and governance, while important, are best left to other bodies. (Though of course US funding for such bodies and organizations would be inordinately helpful, and would likely be more useful than direct involvement.)

So that’s my reasoning. It’s not so much a call to isolationism, as a recognition that the US government can’t be simultaneously engaged in all parts of the world and that some types of assistance are best handled by non-governmental organizations. I expect that regardless of the wishes of scholars and experts on the region, the US will gradually disengage from the region over the next couple of years. I guess that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t necessarily view this policy change as a bad thing.


Corruption in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

Although Vladimir Putin began his first presidential term with reforms that were geared in part toward reducing illegal activity on the part of both state officials and average citizens, the hopes that tax and judicial reform and higher salaries for government employees would quickly reduce the extent of corruption in Russia proved unfounded. Corruption remains one of the most critical problems facing the Russian state and society.

This issue of Russian Politics and Law returns to the theme of corruption that we first addressed in 2009. The authors of the articles found in this issue describe the extent to which bribery and other forms of corruption occur in Russia as a whole and in specific sectors. They also address potential solutions to the problem and even discuss the extent to which corruption is necessary for the continued functioning of the Russian state.

Vladimir Rimskii’s “Bribery as a Norm for Citizens Settling Problems in Government and Budget-Funded Organizations” describes the results of a study that shows that bribery in Russia draws support from a system of norms and values that is deeply rooted in Russian society. The hypothesis driving the study is that bribery in Russia has become a social norm by which citizens solve their problems with government representatives. Rimskii tests this hypothesis by examining the results of three surveys conducted over a ten-year period. The results show that behavior in corruption-prone situations depends on the nature of the problem, with bribery being most common in relations with medical assistance or during motor vehicle inspections, while it was less common in situations where the respondent was applying for a job or government benefits, dealing with housing issues, or even going to court or the police. The frequency of bribery in Russian society is high, but stable.

One interesting finding that comes out of the surveys is that corruption has become such an entrenched part of the system that most people offering bribes do so without being asked and a sizable plurality know in advance the appropriate amount to give in particular situations. The surveys show that almost 40 percent of the population believes that giving bribes is essentially a necessary part of life in Russia. Most people blame the system or corrupt officials for the endemic nature of Russian bribery, rather than implicating their own behavior. They also see various state-sponsored anticorruption measures as ineffective, registering a high level of hopelessness about the possibility of systemic change.

Additional data about the demographic and geographic characteristics of corrupt behavior is found in “The Geography of Bribery” data put together by the Public Opinion Foundation, based on a survey it conducted in 2011. The data in this short article shows that corrupt behavior by government officials is most common in the southern parts of the country and in the twin capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Corruption is least common in the middle regions of Russia, including Siberia, the Urals, and the Volga region. In terms of demographic characteristics, the groups most prone to find themselves in corruption-prone situations are “those with greater social and material resources: men, middle-aged people, people with a higher education, and people with relatively high incomes.”

Large-scale corruption at the regional level is explored in detail by Leonid Bliakher in “The Regional Barons.” He finds that the post-Soviet Russian state has gone through three phases. In the first phase, extreme state weakness resulted in the state’s enforcement functions being performed by organized criminal gangs. As local state structures began to strengthen while the central state remained weak during the second phase, regional barons came to preside over regional administrative markets. The establishment of a strong central state in the most recent phase has led to the creation of a unified national administrative market.

The next several articles examine specific aspects of corruption. In “Bribery and the Judiciary,” Vladimir Rimskii shows that the judicial reform carried out during Vladimir Putin’s first term as president has made bribery more widespread in the Russian courts, with business people the main target of extortion. The frequency with which bribery is used in the court system to assure favorable rulings has undermined Russians’ trust in the court system and has prevented the courts from becoming a way for citizens to protect their rights. In fact, most Russians see no distinction between the judiciary and the executive branch and do not believe in judicial independence.

Anastasia Dubova and Leonid Kosal_’s examine “Russian Police Involvement in the Shadow Economy.” They find that Russians do not trust the police to be impartial in carrying out their duties. The authors find that “police involvement in the shadow economy has reached the point where it poses a threat to the Russian economic and political system.” The main causes of extensive corruption among the police stem from their de facto privatization and use by governing elites in the division of assets left over from the Soviet system. At the same time, the collapse of the communist system undermined the police professional code, while low salaries encouraged police to use their powers to make money on the side.

In “The Border Zone,” Sergei Golunov shows how the Russian border zone offers many opportunities for illegal self-enrichment. He identifies six types of commonly occurring corrupt practices carried out by border zone officials: (1) illegally allowing people or goods to cross the border, (2) extorting money or goods from entrepreneurs and other travelers crossing the border, (3) giving vehicles the right to move to the front of the line at border crossings and customs offices, (4) granting privileges to businesses with connections to the officials, (5) using the restricted status of border territories to exploit their resources, and (6) lobbying government officials in support of legal standards that are conducive to border zone corruption. Golunov argues that smuggling and other types of border zone corruption can be reduced through increased public oversight, systematic rotation of personnel, and the formation of informal associations to pressure officials to reduce abuses.

The last two articles address some of the fundamental causes of corruption in Russia and touch on possible solutions to the problem. In “Hostages of Distrust,” Aleksandr Auzan and Tat_’iana Malkina discuss how efforts to eliminate corruption can have unexpected consequences in societies based on personalized ties. Auzan argues that while corruption can have quite pernicious effects in societies that function based on depersonalized norms, in societies that are based on personalized ties efforts to eliminate corruption may lead to societal paralysis as public services cease to function. He places Russia firmly in the latter group and argues that transition to the group of states founded on depersonalized norms is difficult and does not follow any general laws. Auzan believes that for Russia to make this transition, the creative class will have to put pressure on governing elites to create institutions that can help them function without having to leave the country.

In “The Strategy of the New Principal,” Nikolai Rozov provides a potential path toward eliminating the endemic nature of corruption in Russia. He defines corruption in Russia as a social institution that is based on a principal–agent relationship that allows for frequent violation of formal or informal rules. If such violations become constant, they may be considered rents being paid by clients to the agent, with the active or passive agreement of the principal. While in some societies, the collective citizenry may play the role of the principal, in Russia the role of the principal is given to the supreme state authority—the president. The president has the power to allow his agents to engage in corrupt activities or to punish them for such activities. By frequently changing the rules of the game, the president encourages the formation of an “institutional trap.”

Rozov argues that this trap is created by the existence of a system in which the main actors are more interested in “winning more rights to break rules or greater powers to set both the rules themselves and the rules for breaking rules.” Attempts to replace the existing set of rules with rules that might benefit society as a whole are viewed as hopeless and may lead to the elimination of the actor pressing for such changes.

Based on this analysis, Rozov formulates a potential pathway for breaking out of this vicious cycle of corruption. “The first step is to prevent illegal state coercion directed against persons and property.” This can be done only if a sufficiently large segment of society becomes willing to challenge the rulers in what is essentially an attempt to take away their position as principal in favor of giving that role to the people. This has to be done gradually, first through the formation of local initiative groups that are focused on reducing corruption and reforming the citizen–state relationship in particular localities and on specific issues. Gradually, such groups can coalesce into a political movement that seeks to reform the relationship in Russia as a whole.

In the introduction to the July-August 2009 issue of this journal, I wrote that the most likely scenario is “more of the same, with Russian leaders issuing occasional declaratory statements aimed at making people think that the government is concerned about the problem of official corruption and taking a few exemplary steps against some individuals who have in reality fallen out of favor, while few actual measures are undertaken against systemic corruption.” Events in the last year have shown that this prediction remains very much on the mark, with several corruption-related show trials against regime opponents and highly visible firings of top officials such as former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdiukov for corruption-related offenses. At the same time, there is no longer even any pretense of attempts to eliminate systemic corruption. The governing elites are no longer capable of changing the system they have created; this will inevitably lead to pressure to change the system from below.

Russian Politics and Law, July 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 4 / July-August 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site.

This issue contains:

Corruption in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Bribery as a Norm for Citizens Settling Problems in Government and Budget-Funded Organizations  p. 8
Vladimir Rimskii
The Geography of Bribery  p. 25
Public Opinion Foundation
The Regional Barons  p. 30
Leonid Bliakher
Bribery and the Judiciary  p. 40
Vladimir Rimskii
Russian Police Involvement in the Shadow Economy  p. 48
Anastasia Dubova, Leonid Kosal’s
The Border Zone  p. 59
Sergei Golunov
Hostages of Distrust  p. 71
Aleksandr Auzan, Tat’iana Malkina
The Strategy of the New Principal  p. 85
Nikolai Rozov

Migration Policy in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

Migration has become an increasingly difficult problem for the Russian government as the decline and subsequent stagnation of the size of Russia’s population and a relatively higher standard of living in Russia have made the country an attractive goal for migrants from a number of former Soviet republics. The articles in this issue of Russian Politics and Law examine the question of migration from several points of view, including critical analysis, comparative politics, history, and policy.

In “Central Asian Migration: Practices, Local Communities, Transnationalism,” Sergei Abashin argues that asking the question “how does one begin to see oneself as a migrant?” may be a more useful way to analyze migration than asking “who are the migrants?” He highlights the importance of everyday practices, local communities, and transnational space in determining how people who see themselves as belonging to migrant communities answer this question.

Abashin begins by examining how the term “migrant” is defined in official discourse, showing that usage of the term in Russian government documents and statements is often inconsistent and ambiguous. He then shows how everyday conceptions of migrants and migration are tied into ideas about ethnic identity and national belonging that often diverge from the existing formal definitions of migration. As a result of these inconsistencies, Abashin calls for researchers to focus on ethnographic accounts of being a migrant, rather than limiting themselves to examining formal statistics on migration and drawing policy prescriptions on the basis of such findings.

Iana Strel’tsova’s article, “Integrating Immigrants in an Economic Crisis,” compares the Russian experience of migrant integration to that of France. On the basis of this comparison, Strel’tsova finds that multiculturalism has a poor record of success on the ground in terms of achieving the occupational, social, linguistic–cultural, and political integration of temporary and permanent immigrants.

Strel’tsova argues that governments need to take this record into account in devising integration programs and setting related policy goals. She believes that Russian officials formulating the country’s migration policy need to ensure that the existing ethnocultural and linguistic balance is maintained. She calls for policies that take into account both the state’s ethnic diversity and “the special role played by the ethnic majority—the Russian people—and by the Russian language created by this people.”

Ol’ga Vendina, in “Migrants in Russian Cities,” examines the history of migration to urban areas in Russia and the Soviet Union. Using the demographic history of Moscow as an example, she argues that the placement of particular emphasis on concepts such as “ethnic minority,” “migrant,” and “diaspora” in Russian cities impedes the formation of a culturally diverse, responsive modern urban civilization.

Vendina calls for making a distinction between the concept of an ethnic group and that of an ethnic minority. She shows that people can consider themselves to be members of an ethnic group without regarding themselves as ethnic minorities. Ethnic minorities, furthermore, are a social group that focuses on common interests and threats to the group, rather than their group’s ethnic or cultural distinctiveness. In this environment, Vendina argues that the best way for the government to ensure “amicable cohabitation” between migrants and long-term residents is to encourage cultural pluralism. She is not optimistic that the Russian government is capable of pursuing such a policy.

In “Ethnic and Migration Policy in the 2000s Viewed in the Context of Relations Between the Federal Center and the Regions,” Vladimir Mukomel’ examines the connection between federal migration and nationalities policies. He discusses trends in these policies at both the federal and regional levels, arguing that most of the constructive activity over the last few years has taken place in the regions rather than in the center.

Mukomel’ highlights the problems inherent in a situation where the federal government controls migration while the regions are given responsibility for nationalities policy. This situation leads to various discrepancies and contradictions that damage the rights of members of migrant groups. Without a greater effort to coordinate policies across different levels of government, levels of social tension are likely to increase.

The last two articles in this issue provide some prescriptions for Russia’s migration policy. In “Russia Needs a New Migration Policy,” Sergei Riazantsev argues that Russia’s new migration policy fails to respond to the needs of the time and neglects international experience. He believes that to fulfill its objectives, the state should work to reduce emigration, encourage educational and business migration, make the quota system for foreign workers more transparent, and improve data collection on migration.

Andrei Molchanov’s “Meet the Migrants” presents an official perspective on migration, as the author is a member of the Federation Council. Molchanov highlights the extent of labor migration into the Russian Federation and the problems that it causes both in the labor market and in social interactions involving migrants. He discusses progress in the formulation of official migration policy and seeks to eliminate the link between labor migration and the formation of ethnic enclaves in population centers, which for Molchanov are linked with both illegal activity and the formation of negative attitudes toward migrants among the population. His goals amount to the promulgation of an integration program that would speed the adaptation of migrants and their children to “the cultural norms of Russian society.”

Migration remains a complex and difficult issue for the Russian state and for Russian society. The need for migrant labor is counterbalanced by the danger of rising xenophobic and anti-migrant attitudes among large segments of the Russian population. Successfully balancing these issues is a task at which far more effective states than Russia have failed.

Russian Politics and Law, May 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 3 / May-June 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site.

This issue contains:

Migration Policy in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Central Asian Migration: Practices, Local Communities, Transnationalism  p. 6
Sergei Abashin
Integrating Immigrants in an Economic Crisis: (European and Russian Experience)  p. 21
Iana Strel’tsova
Migrants in Russian Cities  p. 48
Ol’ga Vendina
Ethnic and Migration Policy in the 2000s Viewed in the Context of Relations Between the Federal Center and the Regions  p. 66
Vladimir Mukomel’
Russia Needs a New Migration Policy  p. 80
Sergei Riazantsev
Meet the Migrants  p. 89
Andrei Molchanov