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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 87-94

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

A Mixed Record, An Uncertain Future

Michael McFaul

The defeat of the Communist hard-liners' August 1991 coup attempt marked one of the most euphoric moments in Russian history. For centuries, autocrats had ruled Russia, using force when necessary to suppress society. This time, emboldened by liberalization under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian society organized to resist the use of force by Kremlin dictators. To be sure, all of Russia did not rise up against the coup plotters; only citizens in major cities mobilized. Yet the ripple effects of this brave stance against tyranny in Moscow and St. Petersburg proved pivotal in destroying communism, dismantling the Soviet empire, and ending the Cold War.

The end of the Soviet dictatorship, however, did not lead immediately or smoothly to the creation of Russian democracy. Sadly, the tenth anniversary of this momentous event did not prompt national public celebration. On the contrary, in response to a December 1999 survey, more than seven-tenths of Russian voters said they believed that the Soviet Union should not have been dissolved, while a paltry 12 percent expressed satisfaction with the way Russian democracy was developing. 1 As reflected in the preceding essays, analysts share the Russian public's perception of Russian democracy. Even those most optimistic today about the prospects for Russian democracy offer only the faintest echo of the August 1991 euphoria. Nor has democracy fared better in most of the other post-Soviet states. What happened?

Part of the problem is with us analysts. A distorting interpretive framework has exacerbated our disappointment with the lack of democratic progress in the post-Soviet lands. We assumed that Russia [End Page 87] and the rest of the region belonged to the "third wave" of transitions to democracy that began with the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974.The democratic rhetoric of anticommunist leaders in the region encouraged the comparison.

But "transition" is an imperfect metaphor. As several of our authors emphasize, political change has been only one component of the grand post-Soviet transformation, which also involves economic trans-formation, state building (after state destruction), and decolonization. Analogies drawn from Latin America or Southern Europe do not capture the scale of what is taking place in the post-Soviet world. On the contrary, one of the conditions for successful democratization in these other regions was that economic transformation was not allowed to occur simultaneously. 2 Such postponement or sequencing of change could not take place in communist regimes, where the economy and polity were so intertwined. The transitions paradigm captured only one component of change in the postcommunist world. Other historical analogies--such as economic reform, decolonization, or revolution--may provide a better guide.

Successful transitions from authoritarian rule often have included a pact between soft-liners in the outgoing regime and moderates among the opposition. Pacts are agreements on a path from autocracy to democracy. In the post-Soviet world, however, pacts have not guided regime transformation. Instead, the victors--be they democrats or autocrats--have simply dictated new rules. As highlighted by Charles Fairbanks, politics in the region is a win-or-lose affair. Where there is no predominant power, the result has been (sometimes violent) confrontation, and events that look more like revolution than democratization.

Initial conditions in the Soviet Union also did not conform to the transitions model. In Latin America and Southern Europe, the successful cases were typically redemocratizations. Democratic constitutions, political parties, and civil society were resurrected. The states that emerged from the Soviet Union, however, had no civil society to resurrect. Nor could Russian or Georgian democrats dust off democratic constitutions of previous eras or breathe new life into old political parties of a democratic orientation. Instead, these new states inherited social and institutional legacies from the Soviet era (and before) that impeded democratic consolidation. The post-Soviet states were not even starting with a tabula rasa, but with a cluttered political landscape that had to be cleared before democracy building could begin.

In fact, consolidating...


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