Kleptocracy (from Ancient Greek κλέπτης (kléptēs, “thief”), κλέπτω (kléptō, “steal”), from Proto-Indo-European *klep- (“to steal”); and from the Ancient Greek suffix -κρατία (-kratía), from κράτος (krátos, “power, rule”; klépto- thieves + -kratos rule, literally "rule by thieves") is a government with corrupt rulers (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political power. Typically this system involves the embezzlement of state funds at the expense of the wider population, sometimes without even the pretense of honest service.
Kleptocracies are generally associated with dictatorships, oligarchies, military juntas, or other forms of autocratic and nepotist governments in which external oversight is impossible or does not exist. This lack of oversight can be caused or exacerbated by the ability of the kleptocratic officials to control both the supply of public funds and the means of disbursal for those funds. Kleptocratic rulers often treat their country's treasury as a source of personal wealth, spending funds on luxury goods and extravagances as they see fit. Many kleptocratic rulers secretly transfer public funds into hidden personal numbered bank accounts in foreign countries to provide for themselves if removed from power.
Kleptocracy is most common in developing countries whose economies are based on the export of natural resources. Such export incomes constitute a form of economic rent and are easier to siphon off without causing the income to decrease.
A specific case of kleptocracy is Raubwirtschaft, German for "plunder economy" or "rapine economy", where the whole economy of the state is based on robbery, looting and plundering the conquered territories. Such states are either in continuous warfare with their neighbours or they simply milk their subjects as long as they have any taxable assets. Such rapine-based economies were commonplace in the past before the rise of Capitalism. Arnold Toynbee has claimed the Roman Empire was basically a Raubwirtschaft.
The effects of a kleptocratic regime or government on a nation are typically adverse in regards to the welfare of the state's economy, political affairs and civil rights. Kleptocratic governance typically ruins prospects of foreign investment and drastically weakens the domestic market and cross-border trade. As kleptocracies often embezzle money from their citizens by misusing funds derived from tax payments, or engage heavily in money laundering schemes, they tend to heavily degrade quality of life for citizens.
In addition, the money that kleptocrats steal is diverted from funds earmarked for public amenities such as the building of hospitals, schools, roads, parks – having further adverse effects on the quality of life of citizens. The informal oligarchy that results from a kleptocratic elite subverts democracy (or any other political format).
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use in English occurs in the publication Indicator of 1819: “Titular ornaments, common to Spanish kleptocracy.”
In early 2004, the German anti-corruption NGO Transparency International released a list of what it believes to be the ten most self-enriching leaders in the past two decades. In order of amount allegedly stolen USD, they were:
- Former Indonesian President Suharto ($15 billion – $35 billion)
- Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos (at least $10 billion by 1986, equivalent to about $21.6 billion in 2014 dollars)
- Former Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko ($5 billion)
- Former Nigerian Head of State Sani Abacha ($2 billion – $5 billion)
- Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević ($1 billion)
- Former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc") ($300 million – $800 million)
- Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori ($600 million)
- Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko ($114 million – $200 million)
- Former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán ($100 million)
- Former Philippine President Joseph Estrada ($78 million – $80 million)
The Russian president Vladimir Putin is alleged to be the "head of the clan", whose assets are estimated at $200 billion. A list of Russian and Ukrainian politicians associated with "kleptocractic style" has been published by the Kleptocracy Archives project.
Sources have also alleged that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stole up to $70 billion.
In addition, other sources have listed former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as having stolen $1 billion to $10 billion; and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to have received kickbacks on contracts and misappropriating public funds, siphoning over $2 billion to his Swiss accounts. Moreover, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist have outlined that current Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawas Sharif has created offshore companies through the Panamanian law firm Mosssak Fonseca to hide vast amount of money illegally transfered from Pakistan in the name of children.
Nursultan Nazarbayev is a head of the Kazakhstan ruling clan with $7 billion assets.
The partially recognized state of Kosovo is also run by a kleptocratic regime, mainly formed of members from one of the country's largest political parties, Democratic Party of Kosovo. A report on the wealth of Kosovan politicians showed that despite their relatively low incomes as civil servants, a significant number had amassed personal wealth sometimes amounting to sums exceeding several million euros. More recently, EULEX reported on a specific case where illegal payments of 1.4 million euros had been made between the Kosovan Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Austrian State Printing Company which had previously won a tender to print Kosovan passports, and a former transport minister and current deputy-president of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo Fatmir Limaj was also arrested by EULEX together with six other suspects on charges of organised crime and embezzling at least two million euros.
China's former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, left office in 2013 with his close relatives controlling assets worth at least $2.7 billion. These revelations were censored in print and censored online in China.
The term kleptocracy was also used to refer to the Russian economy soon after the Soviet collapse in 1991. The "democrats," led by Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, freed prices in 1992 and unleashed hyperinflation before they privatized Russia's assets. Most Russian citizens lost their savings in only a few weeks. A few billionaire "oligarchs" amassed fortunes not by creating new enterprises, but by arbitraging the huge difference between old domestic prices for Russian commodities and the prices prevailing on the world market. Instead of investing in the Russian economy, they stashed billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Experts estimate that as much as $15 billion left Russia each year as either capital flight or laundered money from illegal transactions. Referring to Russia, Daniel Kimmage also used the terms: "kerdocracy" ("rule based on the desire for material gain") or "khrematisamenocracy" ("rule by those who transact business for their own profit").
South Sudan obtained independence in July 2011 as a kleptocracy – a militarized, corrupt neo-patrimonial system of governance. By the time of independence, the South Sudanese “political marketplace” was so expensive that the country's comparatively copious revenue was consumed by the military-political patronage system, with almost nothing left for public services, development or institution building. The efforts of national technocrats and foreign donors produced bubbles of institutional integrity but the system as a whole was entirely resistant to reform. The January 2012 shutdown of oil production bankrupted the system. Even an experienced and talented political business manager would have struggled, and President Salva Kiir did not display the required skills. No sooner had shots been fired than the compact holding the SPLA together fell apart and civil war ensued. Drawing upon long-term observation of elite politics in South Sudan, this article explains both the roots of kleptocratic government and its dire consequences.
In 2016, the FBI announced it was trying to retrieve around $1 billion in funds associated with 1Malaysia Development Berhad, an investment fund owned by the government of Malaysia. This was the largest single action ever brought under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.
A narcokleptocracy is a society in which criminals involved in the trade of narcotics have undue influence in the governance of a state. For instance, the term was used to describe the regime of Manuel Noriega in Panama in a report prepared by a subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The term narcostate has the same meaning.