The politics of police reform: dissecting the barriers to change in the post-Soviet world

According to a new book, destabilising episodes of violence and an experienced civil society sector are key parts of building consensus for police reform.

Alexander Kupatadze
14 May 2018

Kyiv, February 2014. CC BY 2.0: Ivan Bandura / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet Countries by Erica Marat is an incisive study of post-Soviet police reforms which has implications beyond this particular region. The book reflects the author’s long-standing experience in studying the issues of crime and criminal justice in the post-Soviet world. It exhibits analytical rigour and mastery of empirical details. In this review, I will briefly re-construct Marat’s argument and will offer some constructive criticism mostly focused on problematising some of the main discussions in the book.

Marat proposes to conceptualise the police as “a medium of state-society consensus” (p. 11), where policing is an outcome of the deliberation between state and societal actors over the nature and limits of coercive action. Marat asks what is needed to reform the police in the post-Soviet world and she situates the answer in three variables: an episode of transformative violence; a pre-existing dissent infrastructure; and a consensus-building process (pp. 9-14). These variables are discussed in Chapters Two and Three, where Marat argues that an episode of transformative violence is crucial in mobilising civil society actors, who then demand police reform. However, whether the episode of violence generates reform momentum depends on the pre-existing dissent infrastructure. If civil society actors lack experience and resources then chances are high that the police will just be refurbished without any profound change. This is a two way process: variations in state-level action (deploying coercive power) and society-level activism (strength and depth of civil society networks) define outcomes in policing.

Marat’s argument is well-reasoned and insightful. It also mirrors some propositions made in previous scholarship on “limited access orders” (North, Wallis & Weingast 2009) and “extractive institutions” (Acemoglu and Robinson 2013), according to which more inclusive practices and empowering large segments of the population are needed to develop more successful institutions. These terms refer to situations where political elites enjoy privileged control over parts of the economy, each getting some share of the rents. In these kind of systems, public goods are distributed on non-universalitic basis benefiting insiders, friends and allies of the incumbent rulers.


Cover for The Politics of Police Reform. Marat clearly identifies the key drivers of change in policing. It is not entirely obvious, however, how much explanatory power one can attribute to each of the variables she uses. The “episodes of transformative violence” (e.g. torture in Gldani prison in Georgia or oil workers’ riots in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan) may only be a trigger for change rather than its main cause.

So, protests against police brutality as well as demands for reform are usually built across long periods of time and are conditioned by a long record of police failures, along with frustration with the unfair deployment of the state’s coercive power. Moreover, other variables may also be contributing to the protests.

In my own work, I have found it difficult to categorise the “colour revolutions” that swept the post-Soviet world in the early 2000s solely as “anti-corruption” protests, because there were many other issues that may have contributed to public uprisings (as well as to public demand for reform) such as perceived inequality and lack of economic opportunities, among others.

Parts of Marat’s analysis remain normative (“what ought to be” rather than what can realistically be done). For example, consensus-building and “finding common ground for change” (p. 200) might be difficult to achieve at policy level, thus having limited practical applicability. This is mainly because consensus-building takes time, and time is a rare commodity during the reform process in highly corrupt societies. In Marat’s definition, consensus building can be a lengthy process and take the form of “regular meetings between public activists and police officials, parliamentary hearings and discussion in the media” (p.13). In Kyrgyzstan, for example, it took one year to develop the concept of police reform (p. 94) i.e. one year was spent to write up a document with no action on the ground.

What is missing in this equation is a time inconsistency problem. Basically, when policymakers are engaged in reform and are trying to build better institutions, they make a promise to the people, who are very likely to be sceptical because of past failures and false promises. Hence, assuming policymakers are genuinely interested in delivering reform, they will be more likely to aim at delivering major results fast in order to establish credibility.

The demonstration of credible commitment to reform is crucial in gaining public trust in the process and signal to potential “spoilers” that things are definitely going to change. In this sense, the pace of reform matters particularly at earlier stages, so there isn’t necessarily enough time for a lengthy process of consensus building. Likewise, the pace of reform also matters for another reason, namely the so-called “spoiler trap”. There are usually large groups of actors that can lose out from the reform and will do everything to undermine it. These maybe corrupt officials or the whole state institutions, because reform undermines the source of their rents. The lengthier the process, the more opportunities and time spoilers have to block the reform, as happened in post-Euromaidan Ukraine where the protracted reform process hasn’t yielded significant results.

The book’s unproblematic acceptance of the role of civil society represents another drawback. Recently, the literature on post-Soviet civil society has discussed the proliferation of “grant eaters”, namely the NGOs with good proposal-writing skills and connections with the donor community that often win grant competitions even though they are not committed to achieving the stated goals of their sponsors and never deliver tangible results (see, for example, Anton Oleinik’s article on the role of foreign donors in Ukraine). This is not just an analytical category, but also reflects the views and perceptions of NGOs in some segments of society. The book doesn’t address whether, and how these perceptions affect the general trust towards the participation of civil society actors in the reform process as a whole.

These issues may have to do with the weaknesses in civil society itself and cannot be only explained by external factors

Moreover, the process of collaboration between government and civil society in Kyrgyzstan demonstrates that various civil society actors may have conflicting ideas informed by mercantilist or competing interests over the definition of the reform agenda which may undermine the whole process (Chapter Five). In my own experience of researching crime in Kyrgyzstan, I found that public oversight bodies of law enforcement agencies are largely dysfunctional and play mainly a symbolic role, giving the opportunity to state officials to argue that the government is “engaged with civil society.” These issues may have to do with the weaknesses in civil society itself and cannot be only explained by external factors, as Marat seems to suggest.

The empirical chapters on Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and Tajikistan provide a good overview of police reform in these countries, with some interesting positive and negative variations. In my own experience, I was struck by both sides, such as the pictures of Felix Dzerzhinsky (aka Iron Felix, the head of secret police for the post-revolutionary Soviet government) in the offices of Kyrgyz police officials, on the one hand; and the glass buildings of Georgian police signalling transparency to the public, on the other. Marat writes that the police in all the case studies remain at the service of the ruling regimes and, if reform happens, it mainly targets street level policing and only enforces technical changes. Moreover, often the rulers “cheat” and use the need of counter-acting unrest to expand police presence, instead of delivering change in policing practices.

The chapter on Georgia offers a critical view of police reform in a country that is usually considered a showcase for success. Marat shows how the reformed Georgian police have remained the safeguard of an increasingly authoritarian regime, as well as how the lack of reform resulted in torture practices in prisons. However, it is not entirely fair to state that police reform in Georgia was as “cosmetic” as in other parts of post-Soviet Eurasia, and it only targeted lower-level petty bribery. At the very least, following the 2003 Rose Revolution against the incumbent government, Georgia no longer has police generals providing protection to criminal groups or organising the smuggling of illegal goods as was the case in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, and can still be observed in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine. Georgia’s police reform has gone further than other countries’ by eliminating petty bribery as well as some forms of high-level corruption.

Overall, The Politics of Police Reform is unique in the depth and breadth of its analysis of police reform and reform initiatives by civil society in post-Soviet Eurasia. The book includes a number of important and well developed case studies, and it will be of interest for students and scholars of Eurasian politics and societies, as well as researchers in the politics of police reform and state-civil society relations. The key takeaway of the book is to exercise a more critical eye towards the role of civil society. This will be especially important in the Armenian context, for example, where the newly elected prime minister has promised to deliver public sector reform and fight corruption.


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