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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 27-34

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

The Impact of Nationalism

Ghia Nodia

Observers who comment on the slide toward "de-democratization" across much of what used to be the USSR often neglect another development that is just as interesting: Why is it, just ten years after all of them were born from the same Soviet institutional womb, that these 15 countries have become so different from one another?

Take Estonia and Turkmenistan. The former is a consolidated democracy with a liberal market economy. It belongs, or will soon belong, to all the "best" international clubs: NATO, the World Trade Organization, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and so on. The latter is run by a dictatorial (though not very ideological) strongman, and in some respects may be even farther from democracy than it was at the end of the Brezhnev era.

These may be extreme cases, but they are not exceptional. In the widely cited annual Freedom House survey, post-Soviet states can be found in each of the three major categories: "Free" (meaning securely democratic), "Partly Free" (semi-autocratic or democratic with serious flaws), and "Not Free" (autocratic). 1 That is, differences among post-Soviet countries are almost as big as those among any other sample of states in the world.

To scholars of the influential "constructivist" or "institutionalist" school, who try to explain political realities through elite-led institu-tional arrangements, this is abnormal. Rogers Brubaker, a champion of this approach, has shown persuasively how Soviet policies that institu-tionalized nationality on both the territorial and the personal levels helped to foster nationalism and the eventual breakup of the USSR. 2 But this [End Page 27] theory cannot begin to explain why the emergent countries differ so widely from one another in various ways, including their respective manifestations of nationalism.

Far from confirming the claims of social constructivism, the story of the Soviet Union, its demise, and the varying plights of its successor states suggests precisely the opposite. Indeed, it is tempting to see the entire Soviet and post-Soviet experience as a gigantic historical experiment designed to cast doubt on the notion that explanations built around "institutional engineering" can go far toward explaining why polities and societies develop as they do.

Although the USSR was formally quasi-federal, Soviet institutions were essentially the same everywhere. Moreover, the communist ideological desire--unprecedented in human history--to shape and control every area of life did not leave much room for regional or local exceptionalism. If any regime could impose conformity across all the areas of a large country, this was it.

Since the fall of communism and the Soviet breakup, all the newly independent successor states have felt the same globalized pressures to adopt markets and democracy. With varying degrees of sincerity, almost all of them swear fealty to democratic capitalism. In their efforts to shape market-friendly and democratic institutions, all have received advice, assistance, and sometimes pressure from the same international organizations, Western governments, foundations, NGOs, and so on.

In other words, the lands of the old Soviet world are like so many fish that have long swum in the same institutional sea. Looking at this situation, an "institutionalist" would predict that these countries should begin to converge on a single model of polity and society. But a funny thing happened on the way to uniformity. Despite coming out of the same Soviet institutional environment, and despite following (or trying to follow) the same democratic-capitalist path since independence, these states persistently display glaring differences while they have in common little more than what is vaguely referred to as a "shared postcommunist mentality."

Are there other explanations that can succeed where the institutionalist framework fails? Might economics hold the key? After all, countries that were more prosperous at the moment of the breakup (such as the Baltics) are doing better now, ten years after, in terms of both the economy and democracy. This seems to make sense, but it only relocates the problem by making us ask why some regions...


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