Kazak Public Resigned to Bribe Culture

Paying out money to officials has become the normal way of accessing free public services.

Kazak Public Resigned to Bribe Culture

Paying out money to officials has become the normal way of accessing free public services.

Wednesday, 5 November, 2008
Following a survey suggesting that corruption in Kazakstan remains as widespread as ever, IWPR has gathered anecdotal evidence revealing that people feel so helpless in the face of constant demands for bribes that they simply pay up without complaint.

In the survey, the latest in a series conducted by the Almaty-based Association of Political Scientists and Sociologists, almost 70 per cent of respondents among the 3,000 people polled across the country believed it is was easier to submit to demands for illicit payments rather than try to fight the system and potentially lose out on benefits.

The poll was commissioned by Kazakstan’s governing party Nur Otan and published on the Respublica.kz website on October 13. In a sign that the authorities are keen to be seen to be addressing the all-pervasive problem of corruption, the work was funded by the ministry for information and culture.

Kazakstan consistently scores poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by the watchdog group Transparency International. In this year’s rating, the country was at 145th place out of 180. Although this is a poor ranking in a list that goes in descending order, Kazakstan still gets better marks than the other four Central Asian states, Russia and Azerbaijan.

Corruption in Kazakstan affects all areas of public life, including business and politics. The local survey, however, focused on the impact of bribe-taking on people’s daily lives, in the shape of the cash payments that are required to get just about anything done.

At this level, the survey group said they believed the worst offenders for taking bribes were doctors, traffic police and teachers – all professions that are normally expected to serve the public to a high ethical standard.

Bribes come in various forms – the inducement paid to an official to win some particular favour or to escape a penalty; and the illicit “fee” that is demanded for a nominally free public service like medicine. Bribery is now so commonplace in daily life that instead of fulfilling the function of gaining some additional advantage, it operates as a kind of blackmail, where a routine service or official document is denied to an applicant unless an illicit payment is forthcoming.

For private businesses that need to file paperwork with state institutions and apply for permits and other documents, bribery is an inevitable part of the process.

“You have to pay for every document, and pay different bureaucrats,” one disgruntled businessman told IWPR. “It’s impossible to submit documents without spending money.”

“Unless a bribe is paid, state bureaucrats will find thousands of reasons to delay their reply, or not to grant permission. The moment you pay up, everything gets done within a day.”

Members of the public interviewed by IWPR, as well as experts on the subject, were pessimistic about the prospects for change.


To get a first-hand picture of what sustains corruption at a day-to-day level, IWPR looked at the experience of one family.

The Azarbievs – not their real name – are a fairly typical middle-income urban family who live in Almaty, Kazakstan’s biggest city and former capital. They own the apartment they live in, a car and a dacha or summer house with a little land around it that they use to grown vegetables.

Aslan Azarbiev is a senior engineer who works for a government firm, and his wife Gauhar is a manager in a private company. Together they pull in a gross income of 1,500 US dollars a month. They support one son, Arman, who is at university, teenage daughter Kamila and another son, Yerzhan, who is still in kindergarten.

Like most people in Kazakstan, the various family members experience different facets of corruption.

For Aslan, the main problem are the traffic police who regularly stop motorists for the slightest offence – real or invented - in the knowledge that they will pay up rather than face the consequences.

“I don’t want to pay the legal fine as they will take my driving license away after two penalty points,” he said.

Effectively the traffic cops calculate that drivers are prepared to pay a small amount on an all-too-frequent basis rather than face a fine or other penalty, which can include being forced to re-sit the driving test. They know that these legal processes are merely opportunities to extract much larger bribes.

“It isn’t difficult to re-sit the test, but they’d fail you nevertheless,” he explained. “Someone would come up to you later… and offer to replace your test result [with a pass] for 300 dollars.

“So it’s easier to pay 2,000 tenge [17 dollars] on the spot.”

Gauhar talks about how having a young child makes parents the target of further demands for money. For example, she admits paying 250 dollars to the manager of a state-funded kindergarten to place her son at the top of the waiting list.

Now that Yerzhan is attending nursery, Gauhar and other parents have to pay out of their pockets to sustain the teacher. “Every month we pay 500 tenge [four dollars] each to the nursery teacher so that she won’t leave. There is a shortage of teachers, and her salary is only 14,000 tenge [120 dollars] a month,” said Gauhar. “We can’t afford to hire a nanny so we end up paying the official kindergarten fee plus extra money for the staff.”

For Arman, bribery is an inescapable part of university life. He is lucky enough to be on a government grant, which he only gets if his academic results are good. To pass his exams, he has to slip the lecturers some money.

“Every single person in my circle has paid a bribe at least once,” he said. “The lecturers will always find fault with your exam results. It’s better to pay 5,000 tenges to make sure you don’t have problems with the resit.”

Kamila describes a different form of illicit levy – this time imposed by the school as a whole rather than by individual teachers. Although public-sector education is free of charge, Kamila’s parents have to pay the school a monthly fee as a contribution to running costs. They also have to buy textbooks from the school even though these should be provided for nothing.

“If you don’t pay 1,000 tenge [eight dollars] to the school fund, the teacher will read out your name on a list of those who failed to pay…. If you don’t buy a textbook, you might get told to leave the lesson or get given a low mark. We always need schoolbooks and they cost 800 tenge dollars each,” said Kamila.

State healthcare is another area where members of the public have to pay for notionally free services, as well as giving sweeteners to individual staff.

With a young child, Gauhar Azarbieva often has to take him to medical appointments.

“Every visit to a health centre or a hospital entails giving gifts and money to doctors. Otherwise you won’t get some medical certificate you need, or you won’t get any attention,” she said.

Another resident of Almaty, who did not want to be named, recalled her own recent hospital experience when she was ignored until she handed over some cash.

“I was admitted to a maternity hospital during a public holiday. For nearly two days I was left on my own. As soon as my husband gave money to individual doctors and nurses, I got proper care and attention,” she said.

This woman said it was pointless to try to object.

“I don’t think there’s any sense in fighting against corruption,” she said. “It will only make your situation worse.”

According to Bigeldy Gabdullin, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Central Asia Monitor, corruption is a legacy of the Soviet system, exacerbated by the transition to a market economy.

“The disease of corruption is common to all people from the former [Soviet] republics both for historical reasons and because these states are going through a period of transition,” he said.

Among the analysts interviewed for this report, the consensus was that corruption was now so entrenched that it was less the exception than the rule where individuals try to avoid established procedures, than a well-oiled mechanism for exacting illicit payments in returned for basic entitlements.

“In my view, in 90 per cent of all bribery cases, it is state institutions that deliberately create artificial hurdles so as to force people to pay bribes,” said local lawyer Sergei Utkin. “If the state itself of creating conditions where it’s best to pay up, then you have little option but to do so.”

Yerbol Kasymov, deputy chairman of the anti-corruption council of the Nur Otan party’s Almaty branch, blames dishonest individuals rather than the entire bureaucracy.

“It isn’t as if someone wants to pay bribes; the bureaucrat literally forces him to do so,” he said.”


The Kazak government acknowledges that there is a problem, and adopted a programme to counter corruption two years ago. Nor is there any shortage of legislation – an anti-corruption law coupled with a decree aimed at dishonest state officials. A conviction for taking bribes can lead to a ten-year prison sentence, while those who offer illegal inducements can also face prosecution.

Sergei Zlotnikov, director of the Transparency Kazakstan group, explained, paying a bribe of more than ten dollars can result in a two-year jail term and the seizure of one’s assets.

“People who decide to offer a bribe need to realise that they are committing a criminal act,” he added.

There are now numerous centres offering legal advice and help to people who want to make a complaint, and Almaty and the capital Astana also have phone hotlines where people can ring in to report cases.

Kasymov says his council has investigated 400 claims so far.

“The most important thing is for people not to offer illegal inducements but to go higher up the system or to specialised centres to get help,” he said.

Some commentators hold that the low-level corruption that affects the average citizen is inseparable from the nature of the political regime in Kazakstan, and argue that the former cannot change unless the latter does, too.

“It’s going to be impossible to root out corruption unless honest leaders with clean hands come to power,” said. Asylbek Kojakhmetov, who heads a residents’ pressure group called Shanyrak. “The system won’t change as long as the bosses of state institutions win approbation from their colleagues by giving them expensive gifts of dubious provenance. That corporate ethic among state officials forms the basis for corruption.”

Kojakhmetov welcomes the introduction of anti-corruption legislation, although he insists that laws must target those at the top rather than the average person who has little option but to pay bribes.

A professor of politics who did not want to be named said the authorities would need to show they were serious about dealing with the problem before their anti-corruption efforts were seen as credible.

“They arrest and try a few people – a mere handful of cases – and put this on television just for show,” he said, suggesting that bigger fish never get caught.

According to Viktoria of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, only a “total purge of the corrupt” will work – and that will only become possible “either if there’s a change of political leadership, or if the current leadership demonstrates the political will”.


Lawyer Sergei Utkin is confidence that with the right kind of public campaigns, people would be encouraged to stand up and be counted.

“People will be prepared to fight [corruption] if they are offered a specific action plan, presented accessibly and in the right way,” he said.

Yet many Kazakstan citizens appear to prefer the path of least resistance.

“For me, it’s easier to leave things as they are,” said Aslan Azarbiev. “If I start lodging complaints and fighting for justice, I might lose my job. They don’t like people like that in Kazakstan.”

And there will always be attempts to get round the rules. A student who declined to give his name said people would turn to middlemen to escape prosecution.

“I don’t know about other universities, but at ours you can pay 300 dollars to a particular individual who will negotiate good marks with your teacher. Thanks to these people, I will never get caught giving a bribe,” he said.

Olga Shevchenko is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.
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