Robert C. Tucker/Stephen F. Cohen Dissertation Prize

2017 Citation Recipient

David Szakonyi

The Robert C. Tucker/Stephen F. Cohen Dissertation Prize, established in 2006 and sponsored by the KAT Charitable Foundation, is awarded annually (if there is a distinguished submission) for an outstanding English-language doctoral dissertation in Soviet or Post-Soviet politics and history in the tradition practiced by Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen. The dissertation must be defended at an American or Canadian university and completed during the calendar year prior to the award.

Winner: David Szakonyi, Columbia University
Title: “Renting Elected Office: Why Businesspeople Become Politicians in Russia”

Szakonyi’s brilliant dissertation explores why private businesspeople run for political office in Russia and the consequences of those choices for Russia’s political and economic development. Using a sophisticated quantitative analysis of an original dataset on thousands of regional legislative candidates and firms, as well as dozens of interviews conducted in three Russian regions, Szakonyi argues conclusively that businesspeople run for office when they believe that lobbying alone will not protect their interests. Moreover, he explains that winning office results in concrete material benefits for the businesspeople’s firms, in particular through increased access to public procurement contracts.

This well-written and clearly argued dissertation demonstrates that in Russia, as elsewhere, businesspeople have exploited public dissatisfaction with “politics as usual” to insert themselves into political positions and engage in predatory rent-seeking. It also illuminates the ways in which the Putin government and the United Russia party have used regional legislatures to bind economic elites to the regime and allocate spoils to insiders. However, the dissertation also suggests an empirically-grounded way out of this circle of corruption. It reveals that politically empowered firms benefit less from elections when they face strong economic competition in their regions. The dissertation thus concludes that strengthening state institutions to prevent excessive industry concentration could reduce the appeal of directly seeking office for firms, as could public service reform to enforce transparency in public procurement and regulation. Szakonyi argues forcefully and convincingly that the best way to curb corruption among businessperson politicians in Russia is to empower their direct economic competitors.