After a quarter-century, the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union looks like a de-democratizing event. Leading up to that fateful year, Mikhail Gorbachev had been one of the world’s great democratizers. But this trend stopped in its tracks and even went into reverse when the Soviet Union broke apart into fifteen newly independent states in late 1991, notes Henry E. Hale, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
In fact, if we take Freedom House measures and leave aside the three Baltic states, which were generally not recognized as being part of the USSR and soon joined the EU, there has not been a single year when the post-Soviet space on average has enjoyed the level of “political rights” that was achieved under Gorbachev. What accounts for this depressing reality? Hale asks in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.
The critical factor, he suggests, is patronalism – “a social equilibrium in which individuals organize their political and economic pursuits primarily around the personalized exchange of concrete rewards and punishments, and not primarily around abstract, impersonal principles such as ideological belief or categorizations that include many people one has not actually met in person.”
While the near-term outlook for full, liberal democracy in post-Soviet Eurasia is grim, there are slender rays of hope, Hale contends:
Constitutions that appear designed to disrupt network coordination around a single patron have been appearing in a rising number of Eurasian countries. Accordingly, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine all have avoided new authoritarian turns for several years now, though their politics remain rough affairs at best. In addition, Georgia’s reforms (including its traffic-policing overhaul) have made a strong-enough impression both at home and across the region that they might catch on elsewhere, maybe even in enhanced form.
In the longer term, perhaps the “economic development always spurs democratization” school of thought will be proved correct. From the vantage of 2016, however, that “longer term” appears long indeed.