Tag Archives: social capital

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (II)

In a previous  post, I indicated two particularities of the link between institutional trust and corruption in post-communist countries.

I would like now to mention a third one. It is more general and, though not a direct cause of corruption, it could be part of the self-reinforcing mechanism on which corruption thrives: the problem of simultaneity.

As Elster et al (1998)  have shown, transition countries with unconsolidated democracies must focus their efforts on three simultaneous tasks: building their economy, building functional democratic institutions and solving their national identity problems (ethnic conflicts, rights to minorities, etc).

One important consequence of not doing ‘one thing at a time’ is that legislation is often ill designed and incomplete, failing to incorporate goals from all three areas. The case of environmental regulations in Romania is instructive in this respect. Here are three examples:

–          For many high-impact environmental projects carried out by private investors, experts elaborating the reports are employed directly by the investors themselves, because environmental authorities lack either the prerogatives, or the funds to do so.  This has raised suspicions about the neutrality of these assessments, as well as about the division of responsibilities between the government and private companies.

–          EU environmental law is excessively transposed into domestic law by regulations which can be easily amended by administrative procedures (resolutions, emergency ordinances etc). One visible effect of this is the rising influence of lobby groups trying to keep this provisional system in place.

–          For major environmental projects with trans-border impact, ethnic divergences can be used to fuel a rhetoric hiding risks and deficiencies of such projects. This would be the case of the Roşia Montană mining project, to which Hungary has officially opposed, and to which all environmental ministers from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania refused to issue the environmental permit.

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences about social capital and post-communist countries.

Social Capital and Corruption in Post-Communist Countries (I)

Many theories on institutional confidence emphasize the importance of social capital for the creation of a functional institutional structure. According to a classical definition, social capital is a public good ‘which refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993, p. 167).

One of the arguments developed by such theories is that there is a strong connection between trust in institutions (and especially in the legal system) and interpersonal trust. More specifically, some researchers have argued that the institutional framework and the system of public policies in a country influence the level of social capital, namely that corrupt public officials generate mistrust among ordinary citizens. Conversely, it is argued, taking efficient steps against corruption will result in increasing the levels of interpersonal trust.

As a national of a former communist country, I agree that high levels of corruption and a strong social capital cannot go together. However, I would like to highlight two particularities of post-communist countries, which should add a nuance to the causal mechanisms between interpersonal and institutional trust:

  1. The distinction between high-level and petty corruption is still fundamental in some of these countries, to the extent that in many cases only the former is perceived as ‘real’ corruption, whereas the other is ‘getting by’, i.e. deceiving ‘the system’. Though many people fall prey to this latter mechanism in everyday situations and complain about it, they have also come appreciate the usefulness of ‘not standing in the queue’ when a shortcut is possible. Therefore, petty corruption is generally perceived as a necessary evil, and people tend to be more tolerant towards this phenomenon as compared to high level corruption. Consequently, widespread petty corruption does not proportionally shake interpersonal and institutional trust. Further, in countries where high level corruption is rampant, people become somehow inured to it, and anti-corruption measures have a much slower impact on trust than in consolidated democracies. For an interesting analysis of this issue, see Uslaner, 2008 (chapters 5 and 6).
  2. Secondly, I think the idea of ‘trust in institutions’ is less clear in countries that experienced communism. At empirical level, the Romanian example shows a gap between citizens, on one hand, and the state and its institutions on the other. There is a consistent collective perception of the state as a monolithic, immobile entity, and it is difficult to think of institutions as the result of a negotiated partnership translated into public policies. Also, unlike consolidated democracies, where criteria for assessing the performance of public institutions are clearer and ordered, in countries like Romania, there is a mix of criteria leading to sometimes paradoxical conclusions. For instance, a 2010 opinion poll revealed that three out of five respondents believed that human rights are not respected in Romania, half of the respondents said they would vote for the reintroduction of death penalty, and the Police (55%) was significantly less trusted than the Church (80%) or the media (61%).

Your thoughts and suggestions are welcome, as well as your personal experiences regarding trust and institutions in post-communist countries.