Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Political Leadership after Communism

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Political Leadership after Communism

Article excerpt

Abstract: Political scientists have paid little attention to the role of leadership. This article suggests a way to think systematically about leaders' contributions in the former Soviet Union by examining their ability to achieve their own goals and the impact they have. The fifteen countries provide a wide range of variation on the dependent variable.

What have we learned about political leadership in the post-communist world? It is fair to say that it is not as much as we have picked up about a host of other ordering issues, among them political economy, institutional design, ethnic conflict, and public opinion and elections. Considering the significance of the magnitude of the topic, we have not learned nearly enough.

There are students of post-communist politics who tend to accept the importance of the theme and those who, embracing structural approaches, tend not to. A majority in the scholarly community fall into the former camp. "Leadership matters," is how they often put it. "It matters a lot. Why, just look at Gorbachev's role, and also Yeltsin's, and then there is Putin, and [fill in the blanks]." However, the majority have seldom thought leadership important enough to make it a primary object of their research. Leaders have figured in a handful of serious political biographies, in naturalistic roles in many studies of other topics, in several studies of ideas in politics, and in all manner of op-eds du jour. These contributions aside, I would submit that we have put together rather little by way of cumulative knowledge. I am hard pressed to identify a single major project that has delved systematically into the leadership factor across leaders and situations, working from hypotheses to investigation and then inferences.

To be fair, the discipline of political science generally finds leadership a notoriously hard phenomenon to investigate. This is said to be so for a variety of reasons: individual leaders are idiosyncratic; they do not sort into neat boxes or lend themselves to generalization; firsthand testimony about their lives and performance in office is often unreliable because it is self-serving, either pro or con the subject; leaders invariably share the stage with numerous other players and forces, which gets in the way of figuring out who and what count the most.

If nothing else, leadership after communism gives us the gratifying "variation on the dependent variable" that methodologists embrace as the cornerstone of systematic research design. Sticking to the constituted leaders of governments and states in the post-Soviet fifteen states alone, one has to marvel at a phenomenon that runs the gamut from Turkmenbashi to Landsbergis, Gamsakhurdia, and Medvedev. To all appearances, there is a wider spread of results here than for more thoroughly explored processes such as economic transformation, state building, and identity politics. The question becomes: can we with confidence link these observed outcomes to observable inputs and draw conclusions about causation?

It helps to begin with broadly defined tasks that political leaders everywhere address. Three of these stand out in the canonic literature. (1) First, leaders mold the agenda of political discussion and debate. Second, they assemble and manage action coalitions at the elite and state-institutional level. Third, unless they are tyrants who rely exclusively on repression, they cultivate a mass constituency below. This in turn entails some willingness to take popular preferences into account--to follow one's followers, as James MacGregor Burns puts it. (2)

For political leaders operating in the immediate aftermath of communism, experience showed that these universal assignments took on a particular coloration and were more arduous than would be the case under other circumstances. Agendas and goals prove to be exceedingly hard to shape when their conceptual building blocks, and the very language in which they are expressed, are in flux and up for grabs. …

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