Rethinking Post-Soviet Politics from a Neopatrimonial Perspective

By Fisun, Oleksandr | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Rethinking Post-Soviet Politics from a Neopatrimonial Perspective


Fisun, Oleksandr, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: Focusing on the battle between democrats and their opponents does not provide a satisfying way to explain the political trajectories of the former Soviet states. A more useful approach is neopatrimonialism. From this perspective, we can explain the colored revolutions as elite-led efforts by rent-seeking entrepreneurs to resist increased pressure placed on them by neopatrimonial states.

The Rise of Hybrid Regimes

Twenty years of transformation in post-Soviet Eurasia make it possible to draw some conclusions regarding politics and regime development. A growing diversity of forms and models among post-Soviet political regimes prods us to revise and clarify many established conceptual approaches to the analysis of political development and democratization. Despite a large number of good theories explaining what is happening, it appears that many post-Soviet political developments are leading to the renewal of patrimonial systems of domination instead of Western-style, rational-legal, competitive democracies.

Initially, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's theory of a global third wave (1991) of democratization urged the majority of researchers to analyze post-Soviet developments in the context of democratic transitions in other parts of the world--particularly Latin America and Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. Today, skepticism and disappointment have replaced the euphoria that emerged after the downfall of the USSR. Researchers talk about the development of various types of post-Soviet hybrid regimes, fagade democracy, and even quasi-democracy, whose nature and "machinery" are very far from liberal standards. (1) These insights are useful but incomplete for solving the puzzle of post-Soviet politics. Today, we have a consensus in understanding that the political transformations of 1991-2011 gave birth to a variety of new political regimes that can be identified as hybrids, which combine elements of democratic and non-democratic regimes.

What are the inner workings of hybrid regimes in post-Soviet Eurasia? What are the distinctive characteristics of the political regimes, which have arisen in the former Soviet area? How are they different from similar hybrid regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America? Is a hybrid regime a stage on the road to a competitive democracy or does it turn into something else? What do we understand and what do we not understand after twenty years?

Time for New Concepts

Twenty years after "the fall," political scientists must rethink their theories about the entire experience of post-Soviet political development. Importantly, a key point in our misunderstanding of post-Soviet politics is that a significant obstacle to developing conceptual clarity is the dominating tendency to study these politics in terms of the traditional dichotomies of "democracy versus authoritarianism," which brings researchers to theoretical dead ends, best exemplified by the various efforts to define "democracies" and "authoritarianisms" with adjectives. The scholastic search for battles between democracy and authoritarianism in the post-Soviet political space--conflicts between good and bad, or democrats and non-democrats--is not an adequate tool for understanding post-Soviet societies. It discourages an understanding of the real meaning of political struggle--the dynamics of elite contestation and its consequences for political and regime development in post-Soviet societies.

Current research clearly shows that the model of democratic elite pact-making, which was peculiar for Central and Eastern Europe, proved irrelevant for post-Soviet development. Post-Soviet elites made pacts in one form or another, but instead of establishing democracy, these pacts instead stabilized and consolidated different variants of non-democratic or semi-democratic regimes. (2) The post-Soviet intra-elite consolidations resulted in cartel agreements for restricting competition and excluding "outsiders" from exploiting public resources.

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