In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. But did it end? The year began with the violent reassertion of Soviet authority over Lithuania, an exhibition of brutality that rallied international support for democrats and independence movements in the USSR. The year closed with the formal resignation of a powerless Mikhail Gorbachev and the official dissolution of the Soviet Union into independent republics loosely joined as the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The institutions of Soviet society, however, did not disappear with the stroke of a pen. The difficulty of Russia's transition to a capitalist system and political democracy--an effort that has arguably regressed in the past two years--has been well-documented. The Baltic states have experienced greater success, pursuing economic and security alignment with NATO and Western powers. Peaceful movements have recently ousted authoritarian regimes in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, but leaders in Uzbekistan and Belarus have intensified their repression.
With the benefit of 15 years of post-Soviet history, this issue's symposium addresses the lasting effects of Soviet political, economic, and social institutions on the former Soviet states. Why has authoritarianism disappeared in some countries but persisted in others? How does the specter of past Soviet domination shape the relationship between Russia and smaller republics? Is the transition from communism to capitalism solely responsible for Russia's social disintegration and political dysfunction? After 15 years, how far has the former Soviet Union come, and how much further does it have to go?
Political scientist Michael McFaul introduces us to the challenge of predicting post-Soviet political developments, describing regimes in a "twilight zone" between democracy and dictatorship and their movement in either direction. Belarusian scholar and dissident Vitali Silitski explains the rise and persistence of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose regime makes Belarus perhaps the most impermeable post-Soviet society. …