Current Events Roundtable: “State Capacity at the Border: Relinquishing or Reinforcing Contentious Border Regions”

For the February 2nd roundtable discussion, “State Capacity at the Border: Relinquishing or Reinforcing Contentious Border Regions,” we were joined by Dr. Ralph Clem (Professor Emeritus of Geography at Florida International University), Dr. Erik Herron (Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University), and our very own Dr. Cynthia Buckley (Professor of Sociology and REEEC affiliate), who presented their current research on the topic. Using Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and Kazakhstan as case studies, Buckley, Clem, and Herron took an interdisciplinary approach to tackling the issues of elections, health care, and state capacity within the Eurasia region.

State capacity, as noted by Dr. Buckley, is a very obtuse conceptualization—so how do we operationalize state capacity? There are a few key things to think about when defining state capacity: for example, the ways in which states, as actors, strive to maintain internal control and stability, particularly when their territorial integrity is under threat. In other words, can a state protect its territory? State capacity isn’t simply the ability to protect; it is also defined by the extent to which a state can implement its goals (to enact and realize legislation, social programs, etc.) and to overcome obstacles and opposition. State capacity is also marked by two key features—governance (the ability of the state to govern and realize its goals) and legitimacy (the acceptance of state authority). When thinking about state capacity, many scholars tend to focus on extractive and coercive capacity (e.g., the ability of a state to collect taxes and extract resources from its populace). Buckley, Clem, and Herron take it a step further—beyond extractive and coercive capacity, they consider the question of a state’s regenerative and distributional power, especially when governing (or attempting to govern) a heterogeneous population that may or may not view the state as legitimate. With that in mind, Buckley, Clem, and Herron focus on the ability of a state to hold legitimate elections and the ability of the state to provide healthcare and wellbeing.

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Dr. Erik Herron, whose research focuses on comparative electoral systems, led the discussion on state capacity and election administration in Ukraine. In terms of state capacity, elections serve as a test of a democratic system’s ability to demonstrate what a democracy can accomplish. Dr. Herron challenged us to think about several things—how does a state mobilize tens of thousands of people and train them to successfully manage elections? What are the impediments to conducting and managing elections? How does a state hold elections in crisis conditions? As most of us know, large swathes of Eastern Ukraine (namely the Donbass) are currently embroiled in an armed conflict between the Ukrainian state and pro-Russian separatists. Unsurprisingly, this poses many problems for conducting legitimate elections and making them accessible to people affected by the conflict. In Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, many polling stations weren’t operational during the 2014 parliamentary elections—essentially disenfranchising countless Ukrainians. The conflict in the Donbass has clearly threatened Ukrainian state capacity; however, the Ukrainian state has also demonstrated an ability to contain the conflict to the Donbass, and was able to conduct elections successfully and legitimately in regions unaffected by the conflict.

Providing another vantage onto state capacity, Dr. Cynthia Buckley focused her discussion on state capacity and health. More specifically, health is meant as the extent to which a basic level of healthcare is available to the population. The issue of health is particularly interesting and complicated in border regions. As noted by Dr. Buckley, borders don’t mean anything to contagion and disease—epidemics can spread easily and rapidly across borders, and into neighboring states. More importantly, border populations tend to be unique. People living in border regions may have transnational identities (and may travel back and forth between neighboring states), or they may have different ethnic, gender, and age compositions than people living in non-border regions. In terms of healthcare, people living in border regions may travel outside of their state of residence to seek medical treatment. For example, people living along the Russian border in Kazakhstan are more likely to travel to Russia and see Russian doctors and go to Russian polyclinics, whereas people living in Astana or Almaty would seek healthcare within Kazakhstan. Dr. Buckley frames the issue of health in terms of metrics, specifically input (provision of clinics, doctors, etc.) and outcome (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.) These metrics can help shed light on a very important question: are regions at the border disadvantaged in terms of healthcare? In the same vein, how do people in border region experience health provision, how do they perceive the quality of these provisions, and do these factors influence their views on state legitimacy?

Wrapping up the discussion, Dr. Ralph Clem presented us with a geographer’s perspective, asking the question of what it means to be in a particular place and how that affects your life. In the context of Ukraine, it makes a difference whether you’re living in Kyiv or whether you’re living in the Donbass. Geographers tend to talk about two things: scale and location, both of which influence what kind of data can be extracted. Scale can drastically change the overall picture of a place. For example, on a global scale, the United States has an infant mortality rate of 6.0 (which is good). But if you go down to the state level, Alabama has an infant mortality rate of 8.7 (which is not so good). Going even further down, Macon County, Alabama has a worse infant mortality rate than Sri Lanka. In other words, scale matters. But location is equally important, especially when thinking about border regions. Living in a border region can affect all aspects of a person’s life—it can affect whether or not you have access to elections, whether or not you have access to healthcare, and whether or not the state is capable of providing these services.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a first-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, specifically issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights (particularly LGBT rights) in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

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