Measuring corruption is an imperfect science. By its very nature, corruption is out of sight; politicians who steal and otherwise misbehave go to great lengths – including legal maneuvers – to hide their activities.
But there is something they cannot hide.
The most corrupt countries in the post-Soviet world tend to have the most overweight politicians, according to research published this month by Pavlo Blavatskyy of the University of Montpellier in France. Average body mass can be a “convenient proxy variable” for political corruption, he writes.
Blavatskyy does not have access to health records, so he employs machine learning to examine photos and estimate the body mass of 299 cabinet ministers from the 15 post-Soviet republics in 2017, ranking them according to the median body mass.
He then compares this body-mass index with five established measures of perceived corruption, such as Transparency International’s annual index and the World Bank’s corruption indicators. “Our median estimated ministers’ body-mass index is highly correlated with all five conventional measures of perceived corruption. […] Latent grand political corruption is literally visible from the photographs of top public officials.”
The countries conventionally rated least corrupt in the post-Soviet world are the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and Georgia. Ministers from these four have the lowest median body mass, according to Blavatskyy’s study. The conventionally most corrupt are Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Ministers in these countries are some of the fleshiest. But Ukraine is an exception: Ministers there are on average stouter than in Tajikistan, the study found, suggesting that Tajikistan may be getting a raw deal from conventional ratings and that Ukraine is getting off too easily.
The paper does not point fingers at any individuals, but does look into the impact of one toppled president.
Armenia’s 2018 “velvet revolution” brought a slimmer Cabinet to power after ousting Serzh Sargsyan. Under Blavatskyy’s measure, that would indicate less corruption. Yet Transparency International in 2018 gave the country the same rating as it did in 2017, during the last full year of Sargsyan’s rule, indicating the revolution hadn’t checked corruption. Blavatskyy explains this apparent inconsistency: Transparency International bases its index on subjective observations and “individual perceptions are known to be sticky and change relatively slowly over time.” (In 2019 Armenia scored better than it ever had.)
Another potential problem with the research: How to account for national phenotypes? Could politicians be heavy because they come from countries with heavier people?
Generally, no. “Countries with relatively more obese cabinet ministers tend to have a relatively less overweight population.” The opposite is also true: In the Baltic states, politicians were thinner than the population at large.
As any Eurasianet correspondent’s observations can confirm, the most corrupt countries in the region are the poorest, with legions of people who appear underweight. That it is these countries where the cabinet ministers tend the most toward corpulence, the author points out, offers an ironic smidgen of a silver lining.
“There might be a health benefit to grand political corruption – it is correlated with higher obesity rates among top politicians (which is a very small fraction of the general population) but lower obesity rates in the general population. Relatively less corrupt countries have slimmer politicians but more overweight voters.”
Slim consolation indeed.