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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 20-26

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

The Primacy of History and Culture

Zbigniew Brzezinski

When speaking of the plight of democracy in the lands that once made up the Soviet Union, we must remember that we are talking about 15 different states, and that no common answer will cover all of them.

That said, I think we can sort these states into three basic categories. In the first category are the most advanced countries, clearly on their way to becoming stable and secure democracies. These include the three Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which have become increasingly difficult to think of as belonging to the same political context as the other former Soviet republics. The elements of culture and history mark these three as fundamentally different from the others.

Turning to the remaining dozen, we may say that nine are countries where democracy exists only nominally or as a slogan that the local rulers reluctantly feel they must mouth, given their economic and financial dependence on the West and its sensibilities. To this class belong the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbeki-stan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) plus Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, and Belarus.

In between these nine essentially nondemocratic states and the democratic group comprising the three Baltic states, we find the third and most ambiguous category, which contains Ukraine, probably Georgia, and Russia itself. Theirs are unstable authoritarian and yet also semi-anarchic political systems, in which democratic institutions operate at some levels but are absent at others. In these countries, the movement toward democracy on a societal level must contend with counterpressures [End Page 20] that are driving the country in the direction of a more stable and authoritarian form of government.

In Ukraine and Russia, especially, there are genuine elements of democracy at work in segments of the mass media, in the widespread freedom of personal expression, in the confidence with which many people exercise that freedom, and in terms of access to external sources of information. But all of this is still vulnerable to political pressures emanating either from the desire to create a powerful state, as is the case in Russia, or simply from the desire of entrenched interests not to be challenged and constrained in their quest for self-enrichment, as in the case of Ukraine.

Although in Russia there has lately been a narrowing of the scope of what we would normally call democracy, some of that has been a consequence of the reduced scope of internal anarchy. This in turn should remind us that much of what we would wish to call Russian democracy has not resulted from the establishment of an institutionalized, constitutional, law-abiding system, but is more a function of the collapse of the state and the open-ended, anarchic competition for power, influence, and information which that collapse triggered. I am not trying to exonerate Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his associates. Their democratic credentials are suspect. But I do think that some restoration of what might be euphemistically called "law and order" in Russia did require constraints on certain aspects of the chaotic freedom that opened up in the wake of the Soviet downfall.

We do not yet know what the terminal point of these changes in Russia will be--of course, there are no such things as terminal points in politics, anyway. But over the next decade or two, we may witness Russia turning into a kind of authoritarian democracy reminiscent of, say, pre-1914 Germany. Russia will not quite be a democracy in the full modern meaning of the word, but at the same time it will not be as arbitrary or brutal or dictatorial as one might fear. Certainly it will be difficult to reimpose on Russian society the kind of effective authoritarianism that some graduates of KGB schools might desire deep in their hearts, even as they publicly mouth democratic slogans.

The Russian political elite is finding it very difficult to digest the fact that Russia's empire and status as a world power are...


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pp. 20-26
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