What’s your dissertation about?

“It’s about how corruption has become an institution and the norm rather than a deviation in the thirty years since the USSR. It’s part of organisational culture and therefore goes unnoticed and is considered a normal part of life. When we looked at Post-Soviet countries at the beginning of the millennium, there were certain organisations where corruption was normal. We focused on twelve countries, excluding the Baltic nations. In Russia, for instance, it was very clear in some cities how much you needed to pay to get a driving licence. It was a fixed price. It indicates that there’s something going on behind the organisation. The question then is how the money is operationalised and how the organisation ended up in a situation where corruption not only becomes a norm but a rationalised norm?”

How did that happen?

 “My research shows that while in the 1990s you could be asked for a bribe by civil servants, you could negotiate the price of the bribe. At the beginning of the 2000s, something radically changed. There was still bribery, but no room to negotiate. There were clear corruption rules and instructions that civil servants had to follow.

This was something that had already been established by Stalin. In the 20s and 30s, there was a huge shortage of food and supplies. The equalisation of the salaries of workers and managers and hyperinflation meant that by 1924 you could hardly buy a cucumber on the black market with Lenin’s salary. Later Stalin introduced new ways to economically support his staff, so that they didn’t misuse the resources they controlled. He legalised the appropriation of resources, to fulfil the centralised economy plans. This was the beginning of the institutionalisation of corruption. He controlled this system with the KGB. When he died, the people around him immediately took over the KGB and there was no longer a way to control the appropriation of resources.

This ended in total corruption and led to the biggest anti-corruption campaign in Soviet history in 1982, during which sixty thousand civil servants across the USSR were arrested. This revealed how corrupt bureaucracy was. But although Soviet corruption was one of the reasons why there was no longer support for the regime, it survived, until the 1990s, until the 2000s and is still there today. When the Soviet Union fell, the old institutions collapsed and new opportunities emerged for corruption. At the same time, all the civil servants arrested during the 1980s were released and many of them took government positions.”

In your acknowledgements, you write that this subject was very close to your heart. Why is that?

“I was doing a masters in Public Administration in Ankara. When it was time to choose a thesis subject, I was one of the two non-Turkish students there. All of my fellow students were civil servants, because they were following a programme where you could have a break from work to get your degree. None of them had chosen corruption because it was a dangerous subject for them to work on. That’s how I crossed paths with this subject. When I got back to Azerbaijan, I worked for a few years, my last job being in the president’s office. After a few years, I realised that this wasn’t for me, so I began my PhD in Rotterdam in 2010.”

How did you conduct your research?

“There was a gap in the literature on this subject with regard to research at micro-level. That’s why I did field research in Azerbaijan and Georgia. My research was on such a sensitive level that for my safety I e-mailed my supervisor twice a day, so that he could raise the alarm if I disappeared. This is a subject where people can lose their heads.”

That sounds heavy.

“I used to joke to my colleagues that the highest rate of suicides is among PhD students, when they are finalising their thesis. Well, my defence of my thesis was planned for October last year. But the week before, I found out that I had cancer and had to have surgery. I even asked the doctor if we could postpone for one week, but in the end I moved the defence. I now have three organs missing. It was a close call: I went to see my doctor four times, but he didn’t send me to hospital. My father, who was in the last stage of cancer, insisted that I had my stomach checked. He died three weeks later. I’m now being monitored by the EMC, but if I can survive PhD I can survive cancer.”

What’s on the cover?

“The red symbolises the formal state of the Soviet Union. The rest, an abstraction of the hammer and sickle, symbolises the different part of the Soviet Union that was not actually red, but the real state, hidden behind the formal state.”

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