Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Diffusion Brokers and Regime Change Waves: The Us Role in the Wave of Central and Eastern European Electoral Breakthroughs

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Diffusion Brokers and Regime Change Waves: The Us Role in the Wave of Central and Eastern European Electoral Breakthroughs

Article excerpt

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a wave of electoral breakthroughs (1) swept through some of the Central and Eastern European countries occupying the gray zone between democracy and autocracy. The cycle began with three overlapping struggles in Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia from November 1996 to March 1997. In those campaigns, upcoming elections became the focal point of popular mobilization in the name of regime change, but only the first two were successful. Slovakia followed with its own election-centered breakthrough in 1998 and Croatia in 2000. That same year, Serbia managed to bring down one of the most authoritarian regimes in the region over election-rigging. After that, the electoral breakthrough model spread to the generally more illiberal Eurasian countries of the post-Soviet space. There, it was successful in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005, but failed in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus.

Autocrats in the region have denounced these breakthroughs as US-orchestrated, raising an important question: What role did the US play in the unfolding of the wave of Central and Eastern European electoral breakthroughs? This question has become even more important and policy-relevant in recent months as the US has debated the appropriate response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election (with many in the US also assuming that the US has itself meddled in elections abroad, including those in the Central and Eastern European wave of electoral breakthroughs). In addition to contributing to this policy debate, the paper adds to the literatures on comparative democratization and diffusion by summarizing and highlighting the role of the US in the wave of Central and Eastern European electoral breakthroughs, as well as by using the case study to theorize the evolving role that overlooked categories of actors--specifically brokers--play in the lifecycle of diffusion waves.

Based on primary and secondary sources, this paper finds that the US did not "orchestrate" these revolutions. In fact, its commitment to regime change differed from country to country in both the successful and the unsuccessful electoral breakthroughs. Firstly, the US provided financial and technical assistance that helped develop the capacity of various domestic political and civic constituencies for reform. Secondly, the US directly brokered the diffusion of the "electoral-breakthrough" model and its constituent elements by helping to put it together and then strategically linking its past adopters to potential future ones. In the end, however, even these efforts were often not sufficient to affect political change.

This paper proceeds by reconstructing the unfolding of the wave of Central and Eastern European electoral breakthroughs from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Next, the analysis examines the role the US played in this wave by tackling two questions: did the US seek regime change in the region and, if so, how successful was it in that effort? Having documented that there is only a weak correlation between US support for regime change and the success of an electoral breakthrough, the study turns to assessing the broader US investment in the democratization of the region. Within that section, the focus is on US support for civil society and political parties--the key agents in the wave of Central and Eastern European electoral breakthroughs. In its second half, the paper accounts for the distinctive US investment in brokering the diffusion of the "electoral-breakthrough" model and its constituent elements, bringing together civic and political actors who might not otherwise have known (of) each other while also possibly (re-)shaping the message that passed between them. The conclusion uses the case study of the wave of Central and Eastern European electoral breakthroughs to theorize the often-overlooked role of brokers in diffusion waves.

Case studies are particularly well suited for developing and generating theoretical propositions because they highlight the relationships between different social phenomena and the processes linking them (Brady and Collier, 2004). …

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