Re-Creating the State: Governance, Civil Society and Trust in Poland, Russia and Ukraine

Re-Creating the State: Governance, Civil Society and Trust in Poland, Russia and Ukraine

In June 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with King’s College London’s Dr Marc P. Berenson to discuss his work on the ESRC-funded project ‘Re-Creating the State: Governance, Civil Society and Trust in Poland, Russia and Ukraine’. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background and how you came to work on this project?

Professor Marc Berenson: After studying Russia during my undergraduate degree, I began my career working for NGOs. I spent two years in the mid-90s based in Kyiv, Ukraine, working on a USAID-funded project for Freedom House that focused on the rule of law and human rights in the Caucasus, Russia, and Ukraine. Following this work, I returned to school in the late 1990s to pursue a PhD in political science.  I was interested in understanding Russia’s relatively weak governance in that era, and in exploring how policy actually gets implemented on the ground. After exploring how the state takes on tasks, I realized that Russia was perhaps the most successful in terms of governance levels out of the countries within the former Soviet Union, although it was quite weak compared to the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. Hence, I sought to compare Russia to Poland and Ukraine to discern a broader range in state capacity. This ESRC-funded project built on my doctoral research and focused largely on government’s role in collecting taxes. 

What did the project entail?

Tax collection is one of government’s most critical tasks. Unless they are located in an oil or natural resource-based country, governments cannot function without revenue paid by citizens. Tax obligations are one of the key citizen tasks that require citizens to actually give something up to their state unlike simply going to the polls to vote or pledging allegiance to the flag. My work examined this relationship by exploring how Poland, Russia, and Ukraine implement tax policy and work to improve tax compliance. 

My research used tax collection as an example of how states conduct policy, and the qualitative and quantitative research including bespoke surveys of citizens and bureaucrats spanned a period of almost 20 years. This work happened in waves as the approach needed to collect data did not follow the bureaucratic processes you might see in a country such as the UK. Opportunities to conduct interviews with tax bureaucrats varied between my case study countries, and I learned the hard way that any government data that might exist on how many people pay their taxes on time and in full was unlikely to be shared with a researcher from the West.  As such, I ended up needing to conduct public opinion polling in all three countries to discern what motivates people to interact with the state. These surveys also explored whether citizens trust their state to provide them with goods and services, trust the state to treat them fairly, and trust the state to collect taxes. 

In the end, the work that began as my doctoral dissertation and that continued with this ESRC project finally culminated in the publication of a book in 2018. 

Can you tell me a bit about the book which emerged from this research?

Taxes and Trust: From Coercion to Compliance in Poland, Russia and Ukraine engages the tax collection process and the administration of tax to test a new model of how states can govern and get things done by placing trust at the centre of activity. Governance is not a zero-sum game – it is not about the state versus society, or the state needing to be more powerful than society in order to fulfill its tasks. The two can work hand-in-hand, and this book argues that in order for the state to govern well it needs to gain the trust of its citizens. The book is available from Cambridge University Press as an open access publication here.

What more can you tell me about the findings from your research?

I found that in Poland, the taxpayers who most successfully interacted with the state did so because they trusted the state to treat them fairly and to provide them with goods and services. Taxation had been rolled out in Poland with a lot of fanfare, with tax officials interacting with the public through the media in the 1990s at a point when people felt they were building up a state that was of, by and for Poles for the first time in generations. Meanwhile, in Russia, people paid taxes in response to coercive measures and to their fear of the state, rather than out of a positive sense of contributing for society’s benefit. Finally, in Ukraine, where there is little fear of the state and little trust of it, taxpayers were most likely to avoid interacting with the state as much as possible. Even where the state tried to be coercive, Ukrainians have recognized there are ways to negotiate their way out. Seeing Ukrainian media freely cover all of the corruption and political infighting in that country has added to people’s sense that there is little from the state that gets spent on them.

What would you most want policymakers to know about your work?

My book makes several recommendations for states like Ukraine that are trying to transition to the rule of law, and one specific recommendation that I believe is worth highlighting is that Ukrainians should receive pay slips every month from their employers and forms like the UK’s P60. Ukrainians, because they often have collected their net salary (after taxes) in cash envelopes while their employers pay their taxes for them, and because salaries are usually only negotiated in terms of net take-home pay, are often are unaware that they truly are taxpayers themselves. By making this process more visible to them, it might help to encourage citizens to hold the state accountable with their money as well as to provide an extra check on the actual tax payment process. 

We are nearly out of time, but before we finish up, can you give me a bit of a preview of what is next for you and your work? 

My ‘work in progress’ at the moment – although it has been slowed by the pandemic – is focused on generating impact from the findings of my ESRC project. I have received an impact grant from King’s that I am using to collaborate with partners in Kyiv to share findings on how they can work to gain citizens’ trust in the tax area. For example, I am planning a roundtable with parliamentarians there. 

Further ahead, I would like to continue my work on governance and corruption by comparing Ukraine with other borderland states such as Moldova and Georgia that are also in the midst of a transition to the rule of law.