Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Same but Different: "Re-Understanding" Elections in Contemporary Post-Soviet Space

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Same but Different: "Re-Understanding" Elections in Contemporary Post-Soviet Space

Article excerpt

In the fall and winter of 2016, a series of elections took place in the post-Soviet region. Azerbaijan changed its constitution via a referendum. Belarus, Georgia and Russia held parliamentary campaigns, while Moldova and Uzbekistan unexpectedly went to the polls to elect new presidents, as did the residents of the unrecognized de facto state Transnistria. All of these elections underlined the "democracy bias" problem in much of the previous literature related to elections in this part of the world, which has resulted in an innate misunderstanding of elections as an institution. Since their independence, observers have assumed that all the post-Soviet regimes are "democratizing." Elections are therefore understood as an institution "transplanted" to these countries from democratic societies and designed to further the democratization process. In reality, however, elections in non-democratic societies perform rather different functions. We now know that the assumption of inevitable regional democratization is no longer accurate, if it ever was. The dismal state of the region is increasingly reflected in the literature on comparative and area studies: the focus is gradually shifting from how and when these regimes would democratize to autocratic diffusion, and why only a few countries failed to "autocratize."

In light of this, the special issue at hand suggests that there is a need to "re-understand" elections in post-Soviet space. Rather than seeing elections purely as a litmus test for the success of regime change, the study of elections as an institution can provide much-needed insight into both regime dynamics and the evolution of the social order. This series of almost simultaneous elections in the region provides ample material for a comparative overview of post-Soviet societies and governments. We seek to offer a more nuanced understanding of how such regimes function in practice - beyond and within formal institutions, as well as the interplay of different institutional structures and how these adjust to new domestic and external challenges.

In this introduction, we will strive to provide a theoretical framework for the articles that follow. We will begin by outlining the background to these texts, building on previous literature on elections and regime change in post-Soviet space. After this, we will present two perspectives on elections that we believe make our analyses especially important. The first suggests that elections provide a valuable "snapshot of here and now" in terms of regime dynamics and state-society relations, thereby enriching our knowledge of domestic structures as well as existing constraints on and choices for the regime and its challengers. This "snapshot" also illuminates the current political equilibrium, providing insights about when elections disrupt or stabilize a regime, and under what conditions the mechanism and primary purpose of elections change. The second sees elections in a longterm perspective, as part of the social order and indicators of the system's evolution and continuity. On this view, elections and their development can help explain institutional persistence and suggest historical development over time and the potential for institutional change.

Finally, it is important to note that the electoral campaigns that are the focus of this special issue were not conducted in a vacuum but were held in a new geopolitical environment very much shaped by the crisis in Ukraine. Therefore, the introduction will conclude by discussing how the changing context contributed to different constellations of domestic political, economic and identity crises in most of the countries in question. This certainly impacted the elections "here and now," but has, interestingly, seemingly had little influence on the overall legacies and trajectories of the regimes thus far.

Beyond Regime Change: Regime Dynamics and the Evolution of the Social Order

Democratization by Elections: The Era of Color Revolutions

Previous studies of the post-Soviet region have placed major focus on understanding the type of regime and underlying factors that would explain the trajectories of regime change. …

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