WITH ITS INSPIRING IMAGES OF CITizens around the Middle East taking to the streets to demand an end to dictatorship, the Arab Spring rekindled our faith in democracy. As the dramatic events unfolded on television, it was impossible not to believe that however tightly autocrats may try to hold on to power, and however messy transitions may be, in the end, despotism must yield to the will of the people.
But a look to the east and north, toward the former Soviet Union, provides a sobering reminder that democracy is not the inevitable result after dictatorships fall. The 15 former Soviet republics have seen dictatorial regimes ousted in not one but two distinct waves--the first after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the second a dozen or more years later in the so-called color revolutions that brought down autocrats in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Yet no real benefits have accrued to political and civil rights in the region; indeed,they are more limited than before. (The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are exceptions; not absorbed into the Soviet Union until 1940, all three have become democracies and members of the European Union.) Freedom House, an American organization that promotes the advancement of democracy worldwide, produces annual measures of political and civil freedoms in every country. According to its data, only two of the ex-Soviet republics outside of the Baltics--Georgia and Moldova--have better scores today than they did when they gained independence in 1991. Armenia's have not changed. The scores of the other nine states have gone backward.
Two leading scholars on democratization, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, of Harvard and the University of Toronto, respectively, have written that "expectations (or hopes)" for democracy in the former Soviet Union have "proved overly optimistic," and that it may be "time to stop thinking of these cases in terms of transitions to democracy and to begin thinking about the specific types of regimes they actually are." And that was in 2002. Yet U.S. officials still cling to the notion that the region is in a "transition" to democracy. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit in 2011 to Uzbekistan and its president, Islam Karimov, one of the harshest dictators on the planet and perhaps the least likely leader in the region to move anywhere close to democracy, a State Department official told reporters on the trip that "President Karimov commented that he wants to make progress on liberalization and democratization, and he said that he wants to leave a legacy of that for his--both his kids and his grandchildren." Pressed by an incredulous reporter, the official added, "Yeah. I do believe him."
Evidence, however, is mounting that not only has democracy failed in most countries of the former Soviet Union, but that people there do not particularly regret it. Surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project have found that the percentages of Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians who believe that a "strong leader" is preferable to a democratic government have risen significantly over the past 20 years. A survey last year of 10 ex-Soviet states by the Russian research institute Integration found that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is even more popular in other parts of the former Soviet Union than in Russia itself. "People want a strong hand, stability, growth, and prosperity," explained the institute's director, Sergei Moroz.
The divergent trajectories of two neighboring countries in Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are illustrative. In the early days of independence, Kyrgyzstan was widely described as an "island of democracy." It had genuinely competitive political parties, an open, combative press, and a parliament that was popularly elected, not a rubber stamp. In 1993, Strobe Talbott, then President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the new post-Soviet countries, called Kyrgyzstan's president "a true Jeffersonian democrat. …