Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Sovietology, Post-Sovietology, and the Study of Postcommunist Democratization

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Sovietology, Post-Sovietology, and the Study of Postcommunist Democratization

Article excerpt

What have social scientists learned about postcommunist democratization since the collapse of the USSR in 1991? In our recent book Postcommunism and the Theory of Democracy, Richard Anderson Jr., M. Steven Fish, Philip Roeder, and I argue that many widely accepted theories of democracy fall short when confronted with the evidence of postcommunist cases. On one hand, classic political science studies claiming to identify the "prerequisites" of democracy, whether they emphasize the importance of industrialization, wealth, pre-existing democratic traditions, or vibrant civic culture, simply don't explain the pattern of distribution of democracies, semidemocracies, and autocracies now found in the postcommunist region. On the other hand, early predictions of a smooth democratic "transition," resulting from elite pacts and a careful "crafting" of formal democratic institutions, which tended to downplay the importance of Leninism's institutional and social legacies, have proven equally unhelpful in making sense of broad outcomes thus far.

In short, the progress of democracy in the postcommunist region over the first decade since the Soviet collapse presents a more mixed picture than originally anticipated by either pessimistic sociological or optimistic institutional analysts. The most successful postcommunist democracies, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, now seem fully consolidated and stable; countries that few scholars would have expected to be democratic in the twenty-first century, such as Moldova and Mongolia, continue to defy predictions of collapse or reversal; and formerly autocratic regimes in Serbia and Croatia have taken decisive steps toward democratization. Yet at the same time, countries that once looked like democratic success stories, such as the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia, continue to struggle with fragile electoral institutions, weak civil societies, and often unconstrained executive branch power; formerly democratic Azerbaijan and Belarus have become fully autocratic; and outright dictatorships in Central Asia show few if any signs of meaningful reform. We apparently still lack an overarching theory of democratization that can make sense of the ways in which the collapse of the once seemingly monolithic Soviet bloc generated such complex patterns of democracy, quasi democracy, and autocracy.

To be sure, we have made strides in identifying some of the key factors that tend to correlate with democratic success or failure in the postcommunist region. Thus we know from multicountry studies by Fish and others that countries in which market reforms were pursued more vigorously tend to be more democratic than those with less reformed economies; we know from the work of Jeffrey Kopstein and David Reilly that countries bordering existing liberal democracies tend to do better than countries far from the European democratic core; and we know from recent essays by Michael McFaul that postcommunist democracy is more likely to succeed where ideologically committed democrats have attained decisive power than in places where power has remained divided between opposed ideological forces. None of these factors, however, fits very easily into existing social science theories of democracy, which tend to de-emphasize the importance of ideology and geographic diffusion, and which often posit rapid marketization as a threat to democratic consolidation. For those who anticipated that simply reinserting post-Soviet studies into the mainstream of comparative politics would suffice to resolve theoretical debates about postcommunist change, such an outcome should be sobering.

In this short essay, I will argue that further progress toward a comprehensive theory of postcommunist democratization requires us to return to a more detailed analysis of institutional and social developments during the communist period itself. Unfortunately, due to the discrediting of the subfield of "Sovietology," the study of Leninist political and Stalinist socioeconomic institutions has been almost completely neglected in the political science profession since the early 1990s. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.