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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 35-41

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

From Democratization to "Guided Democracy"

Archie Brown

While the questions posed by the Journal of Democracy are concerned mainly with the post-Soviet period, it is important to note at the outset that the most significant and, in many respects, most successful part of Russia's political transformation--namely, the transition from communism--took place while the Soviet Union was still in existence. Far too often, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the transformation of the communist system are conflated.

The transition from communism had essentially occurred by the spring of 1989. Glasnost, a gift from above, had developed into freedom of speech. The Communist Party's monopoly on power had disappeared de facto with the rise of numerous sociopolitical movements. (It was removed de jure in March 1990, when the Communist Party's "leading role" was excised from the Soviet Constitution.) Within the party, "democratic centralism" had given way to vigorous and open debate among different opinion groupings and factions. Contested elections in 1989 for a legislature with real powers replaced pseudo-elections for a rubber-stamp assembly.

The Soviet economic system was in limbo by that time. A series of laws legalizing individual economic enterprise, devolving power from ministries to factories, and creating cooperatives that became thinly disguised private enterprises produced both intended and unintended consequences. The command economy was ceasing to function but what remained was still far removed from a market economy. Moreover, the [End Page 35] legitimizing goal of the building of communism, an ideological feature distinguishing communist parties from socialist parties of a social-democratic type, had been abandoned by Mikhail Gorbachev and by his reformist allies. 1

While the liberalization and partial democratization of the highly authoritarian and ideologized Soviet system were unambiguously to be welcomed, there is no good reason why the disintegration of the USSR into 15 new states should have been seen as constituting a democratic gain for Russia or the 14 others. For observers on whose scale of values democracy and the rule of law come higher than nation-building and the myth that every nation, however recently constructed, should have a state corresponding to "national" boundaries, the burden of proof that breaking up a larger country will promote democracy lies with the disintegrationists. The existence of historical injustices or of states formed or expanded as a result of territory at some point having been forcibly seized do not in themselves constitute reasons for the dissolution of a modern state. Few states--certainly not the United States--would survive intact if those criteria were sufficient grounds for separatism.

The Baltic States

Even so, it was clear to most outside observers that, if the Soviet Union were democratized, the three Baltic countries would have to become independent. The greater part of their populations would not recognize as legitimate or democratic a political entity, even a confederation, whose center remained Moscow. Their experience following incorporation into the Soviet state in 1940 had powerfully reinforced a preference for independent statehood--a choice that has been largely vindicated. Of all 15 successor states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, whatever their faults and numerous imperfections, are closest to the democratic end of the political spectrum. While they were better prepared for transition than most other Soviet republics thanks to their connections with their democratic neighbors in Scandinavia, stronger civil society (including major autonomous religious institutions), and higher levels of economic development, they have owed much of their relative success to the greater commitment of their postcommunist elites to the creation of democratic institutions, a tendency strongly reinforced by the prospect of EU mem-bership.

Where the Baltic states were most likely to fall short of democratic standards was in their treatment of the Russians living in their midst. Partly in response to external incentives, however, indigenous Baltic elites have come to realize that, since the Russians are not going to leave, it is necessary to reduce the barriers to their full citizenship and to accept that movement toward bilingualism (or eventual full linguistic assimilation...