Political Transitions: Democracy and the Former Soviet Union

By McFaul, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Political Transitions: Democracy and the Former Soviet Union


McFaul, Michael, Harvard International Review


The defeat of the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow marked one of the most euphoric moments in Russian history. For centuries dictators had ruled Russia using force to suppress and at times annihilate society. Emboldened by liberalization under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian society organized to resist this use of force by Kremlin dictators. To be sure, all of Russia did not rise up against the coup plotters; only citizens in major cities mobilized. Yet, the ripple effects of this brave stance against tyranny in Moscow and St. Petersburg proved pivotal in destroying communism, dismantling the Soviet empire, and ending the Cold War. By December 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

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The end of the Soviet dictatorship, however, did not lead immediately or smoothly to the creation of democracy in either Russia or in most of the other newly independent states that emerged after the USSR's collapse. In the wake of the exciting aftermath of a new wave of democratic transitions in East Central Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, scholars of democratization anticipated a similar process in these new post-Soviet states that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fifteen years later, democracy is still struggling to take hold in the region. In the initial wave of regime change, the three Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania--made the jump from communist rule to democratic consolidation relatively easily but they were the exception in the region, not the rule. Post-communist dictatorship quickly replaced communist dictatorship in most of Central Asia while border disputes, the challenges of economic transformation, and the lingering legacies of communist institutions produced unconsolidated, semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian regimes in the Caucasus, the Slavic states, and Moldova. In these countries, the momentum for democratization stopped long before the framework of liberal democracy emerged. By the end of the 1990s these regimes seemed permanently stuck in a twilight zone, trapped somewhere between dictatorship and democracy.

Explaining the First Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship

Of the many countries undergoing democratization in Latin America and southern Europe in the two decades before the Soviet collapse, the most successful cases were "pacted" transitions. Pacts were constructed between soft-liners in the ancien regime and moderates in civil society. They were designed, as Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter explain in Transitions from Authoritarianism: Tentative Conclusions, to "limit the agenda of policy choice, share proportionately in the distribution of benefits, and restrict the participation of outsiders in decision-making." These pacts most often occurred when the distribution of power between the forces for change and against change was relatively equal.

This pattern did not occur in the new states of the former Soviet Union. Instead of negotiations and compromise between leaders in the old Soviet regime and new democratic challengers, there was a breakdown of the state and conflict between opposing forces in the Soviet republics. Rather than pacts, one side--the powerful side--dictated the new political rules. If the powerful were democrats, then the rules were democratic. If the powerful were autocrats, then the rules were autocratic. When the distribution of power between "democrats" and "autocrats" was relatively equal, an unstable regime emerged as successful negotiations between these two sides failed to occur.

Democratic Transition: The Baltics

The first transition path occurred in the three Baltic states. The dominant dynamic was confrontation between old elites and new societal challengers, not compromise. Additionally, the masses were involved, not sidelined as they usually were in the old regime. When the balance of power became clear, in large measure through elections in the spring of 1990, these societal actors then imposed their will on the weaker elites from the ancien regime, be they soft-liners or hard-liners. …

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