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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 19

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

No topic has been covered so intensively in the Journal of Democracy as the political evolution of the former Soviet Union. During our first two years of publication in 1990-91, the USSR was battered but still standing, and our authors explored the implications of its impending fall. Subsequently, our pages have been filled with articles analyzing the fluctuating fortunes of democracy in Russia, as well as other post-Soviet states. Now that we are in the midst of the tenth anniversary of this momentous event, it seemed to us a fitting moment to evaluate a decade's experience with democracy-building in the successor states of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, we recruited a diverse group of political and academic experts and posed to them the following challenge:

It is now ten years since the failed August 1991 coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners set in motion a series of events that led to the voluntary dissolution of the USSR and the transformation of its 15 constituent republics into independent states. Most of them claimed to be setting out on the road to democracy, and there was great optimism in some quarters, and considerable skepticism in others, about their ability to reach this destination. A decade later, the picture may still be sufficiently mixed to give some support to the optimists as well as the skeptics, but the last couple of years clearly have not been propitious for the fortunes of democracy in "the post-Soviet space." Apart from the Baltic states, democracy today seems to be in retreat throughout the region.

In light of the sobering experience of the past ten years, how would you evaluate post-Soviet efforts at democratization? How would you account for the differences in performance among the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union, and between them and other postcommunist states? What have been the critical obstacles to democratic success? The legacy of communism? Culture? Poor institutional choices? Bad leadership? Economic mistakes? Western policy? Other factors?

We ask that you write a short essay of no more than 3,000 words addressing these questions and drawing out what you consider to be the chief lessons of the post-Soviet experience. Although we would like you to keep in mind the broader picture, you may seek to illuminate it by focusing primarily on one or a few states or on a specific aspect of post-Soviet democratization.

Ten replies appear in the pages that follow, concluding with an essay that seeks to highlight some of the principal contentions of the other contributors. We are particularly grateful to its author, Michael McFaul, who also helped us to plan and to shape this symposium as a whole.

--The Editors, 13 September 2001



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