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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 19Book Reviews - General (6)Erica Marat, The Politics of Poli...

Book Reviews - General (6)

Erica Marat, The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet Countries

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, 249 pages
Matthew Light
Bibliographical reference

Erica Marat, The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet Countries, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, 249 pages

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Political Science
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1During the Cold War, western scholars of the USSR generally devoted little attention to the Soviet police, including both the main public-order policing agency, the militsia, as well as other subdivisions of its parent organization, the Ministry of Internal Affairs. While a few scholars of the era, notably Louise Shelley, understood that the police served as the most important institutional defenders of social order and the regime’s first line of defence against domestic challenges, most observers tended to slight them as the less prestigious, less important siblings of the KGB and military. In the post-Soviet period, this scholarly neglect has begun to be remedied, as post-Soviet writers have taken an interest in the development and transformation of policing across Eurasia. Erica Marat’s new book makes an important contribution to this growing scholarly literature by adopting an explicitly comparative analysis that enables Marat to identify and address several key theoretical problems. This elegant study should interest both specialists in the field of post-Soviet policing, and other readers seeking a broad comparative overview of policing developments in the region.

2Marat’s core focus in this volume is state violence against citizens. She conceptualizes police reform in authoritarian regimes as a process in which the regulation of such violence is contested, possibly leading to a reallocation of power over the police between the state and society (p. 4). The outcome of interest is whether this process results in increased constraints on police use of violence, and as a corollary allows representatives of society to participate in the governance of policing; or instead to some less favourable result, such as either simple ratification of the status quo (perhaps with some reformist window-dressing), or perhaps even “police refurbishment,” a reassertion of central state authority over police without an opening to society. The post-Soviet region offers ideal conditions for Marat’s comparative case study approach, since as she notes, all post-Soviet regimes inherited from the USSR similar militaristic police services primarily dedicated to regime survival rather than public safety (p. 22), making their subsequent divergence intrinsically worthy of investigation. Reviewing a mass of data about the circumstances of police reform efforts across the region, Marat notes they are typically sparked by an incident of what she terms “transformative violence,” in which extreme abuse of civilians results in protest activities that compel the state to respond in some way. She hypothesizes that the exact nature of the response depends largely on two variables: first, whether the violent incident took place in an urban or rural setting; and second, the density and forms of engagement of pre-existing civil society actors. The most profound transformation of policing is expected in urban areas, whose citizens have more leverage over official stakeholders and better access to information, and when civil society is well positioned to make use of the opening presented by public protests to demand such transformations. In contrast, minimal “police refurbishment” is expected in rural areas, whose residents are largely disenfranchised and whose activist networks are far sparser.

3Marat carries her analysis through several cases, relying on appropriately triangulated sources of data, including elite interviews and relevant documentary sources. The results largely validate her hypotheses, with some interesting nuances. Thus, urban protests in Tbilisi, Georgia; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Kyiv, Ukraine, all produced at least a commitment from the authorities to repudiate torture and curtail police contract killings. Nonetheless, although the protests over police torture led to the downfall of President Mikheil Saakashvili and to some initial dialogue between the new regime and civil society groups, Marat finds that the new authorities soon began limiting the role for public input into police reform (Chapter 4). In contrast, protest in Bishkek seems to have led to a more consensual reform process (Chapter 5), whereas the ongoing political ferment in Ukraine following Kyiv’s Euromaidan has led to a contested, drawn-out process without a clear resolution (Chapter 6).

4A more significant contrast emerges between the results of urban protests against police violence, taken together, and those of rural protests. Analyzing rural protests in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan (Chapter 7), and then Kazakhstan and Tajikistan (Chapter 8), Marat finds that such protests resulted in little to no substantive reregulation of police violence, and instead primarily furnished central authorities with a justification to recentralize control over policing in far-flung regions of the country. It is particularly noteworthy that the urban/rural distinction Marat identifies seems more determinative of the outcome than the formal nature of the regime as a whole, that is, exactly where it would be placed on the democratic/authoritarian spectrum. In an argument that resonates with Lucan Way’s earlier research on competitive authoritarian regimes, Marat suggests that the importance of the urban/rural distinction rests on the weakness of civil society in the post-Soviet countryside and its lack of connections to national and international partners (p. 156).

5Marat’s study yields implications that should interest policing scholars outside the post-Soviet region. First, by operationalizing police reform as a process, and identifying two key variables that seem to inflect that process, she provides a theoretical framework that may be relevant as far afield as, say, debates about police in the United States. She also identifies a clear criterion for the success of the process, namely “the extent of collaboration between civil society and the interior ministry on new ways of policing” (p. 199). A policy implication for international partners is that reform efforts they support should include an important role for civil society, as otherwise the result may simply be “refurbishment”. For example, Marat tasks the OSCE with engaging in such a state-dominated reform process in Kyrgyzstan (p. 151). In addition, Marat’s focus on reducing police violence enables her to offer a more focused, concentrated discussion of reform. At the same time, the study also invites readers to reflect on what other aspects of reform are important, and how they fit together. Thus, Marat suggests that the fight against police corruption ultimately derives from the struggle against police violence (p. 203). Future studies, engaging with the extensive criminology literature on police corruption, could investigate the connection between these varieties of abuse, and integrate Marat’s findings into broader arguments about the regulation of the police.

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Electronic reference

Matthew Light, “Erica Marat, The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet CountriesThe Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 16 January 2019, connection on 19 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Matthew Light

University of Toronto

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