Nationalism and the Transition to Democracy: The Post-Soviet Experience

By Gill, Graeme | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Nationalism and the Transition to Democracy: The Post-Soviet Experience


Gill, Graeme, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: The political trajectories of the post-Soviet states are varied, with democracy being the outcome in only a minority of these countries. The different outcomes are striking, given the similarity of starting points. The key to understanding a democratic outcome lies in the different relationships between old regime elites and civil society-based opposition forces, and the ethnic balance in the country. Nationalism, reflected in the popular front movements, was crucial for a democratic outcome.

Key words: democracy, mobilization, nationalism, popular front, post-Soviet, stateness

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The collapse of the USSR resulted in the emergence of fifteen new, independent states on the territory of the former Soviet Union. This development was widely heralded at the time as constituting a major surge in the broader wave of democratization that had been sweeping the world in the last quarter of the twentieth century. But the disposition of the post-Soviet regimes does not represent a clear and unambiguous strengthening of global democratic ranks; the over-whelming majority of regimes to emerge from the Soviet carapace have domestic political arrangements that fall significantly short of what would be considered a democratic system. A democratic system is defined in terms of the existence of the procedural minima for democracy, essentially competitive elections that are free and fair, plus recognition of civil and political rights. (1)

By the mid to late 1990s, the former Soviet republics, despite starting from a situation in which they shared similar political institutional structures, exhibited a range of regime types. Some (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were democracies (2) characterized by a widespread observance of civil and political rights. Some (Russia, Ukraine Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia) were facade democracies, (3) (competitive elections were not free and lair) and observed some civil and political rights, but the latter were denied either to a section of the population or perhaps to the whole population for a limited time. Others (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) were non-democracies (usually elections were noncompetitive), with, at best, limited observance of civil and political rights.

Although views may differ about the precise characterization of the regime in each country and, over time, political change can bring about a change in regime type, on the Freedom House indices there are clear and sustained differences between the three democracies, the five facade democracies, and the seven non-democracies. Given the similarity of institutional starting points, the early diversity of outcomes is striking. How can these different initial outcomes of regime change be explained?

Democratization

One of the most prominent themes in political science writing in recent decades is democratization, or the way authoritarian regimes give way to democratic regimes. While there is much controversy about this process and about how relevant the literature devoted to regime change in Latin America and southern Europe is to the former Communist world, (4) virtually all explanations both of regime transition and of particular regime trajectories start from that existing literature. Although some argue that the postcommunist experience cannot easily be accommodated within the earlier paradigms and that crucial aspects of those paradigms must be changed, (5) the explanations that emerge usually remain deeply influenced by this past scholarship. This is as evident in the explanation of the differences in regime trajectory as it is in the more general discussions of the determinants of regime change.

The differences in regime trajectory, and particularly the emergence of democratic regimes in some of the former Soviet republics but not in others, have been a matter of scholarly concern for some time. …

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