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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 65-70

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

Russia's Hybrid Regime

Lilia Shevtsova

Ten years after the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent states, it is possible to form some preliminary conclusions regarding the challenges and problems faced by these transitional societies. First of all, despite their common Soviet roots, their paths of post-Soviet development are becoming ever more divergent--evidence that there are more influences at work than just the legacy of the USSR.

One can provisionally identify three groups of states, based on the degree to which they have moved toward "polyarchy." The first group, the Baltic states, have come closest to liberal democracy, although even here it is premature to speak of democratic consolidation. The second group includes those states that have been able to form weak institutions but still suffer under personalistic government, or those in which the Soviet bureaucracy, which has disintegrated into clans, still holds sway. There are as yet no guarantees that democratic changes are irrevocable in these states--Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova. The third group includes neopatrimonial and even openly sultanistic regimes of varying degrees of authoritarianism. It comprises Kazakhstan, Azer-baijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

In the overwhelming majority of post-Soviet states, the fundamental problems of democratic development--building the foundations of the rule of law, dismembering the traditional monolithic government, training society and the elite to live under independent political institutions, ensuring political accountability and alternation in power, and forming a consensus in society that democracy is "the only game in town"--have still not been resolved. True, in almost all the newly independent states people have realized that the old mechanisms of legitimation-- party, [End Page 65] ideology, heredity, and force--are exhausted, and the elites have thus been forced to legitimate their rule through elections. But in a situation where power remains undivided, authoritarian elements linger, and civil society is weak, democratic institutions (above all, elections) increasingly take on an imitative, surrogate character and begin to ring hollow. 1

Several factors have influenced the evolution of political regimes in the post-Soviet era. Some of these loomed larger during the transition, while others matter more now. The decisive influence on the character of the postcommunist transition was the inability of the political class (including its liberal-democratic wing) to transcend the previous civili-zational model, which had been founded on a faith in a "special path" of development. Important elements of this model included a reliance on personalized networks rather than on institutions, a stress on the subordination of society rather than dialogue with it, and an attempt to impose modernization "from above" without the active participation of the masses.

The old paradigm endures partly because Gorbachev's perestroika era was so brief, because there was no alternative elite ready to step in, and because the old habits of state paternalism and societal passivity lingered. 2 The pragmatic part of the Soviet nomenklatura--which rose to power on the ashes of communism and faced no pressure from below or from an alternative elite--was unable or unwilling to embrace new democratic "rules of the game," although it did learn to give the appearance of doing so.

The three simultaneous transformations of state-building (especially where the traditions of the state were either weak or nonexistent), democ-ratization, and economic reform--which at times required incompatible methods of implementation--have also had an influence on the character of the post-Soviet period. 3 Moreover, one must note the dramatic paradox faced by all post-Soviet states. On the one hand, the challenges of globalization and postindustrial development demand that these states seek inclusion in the world economic and political community, which means downplaying the old themes of territory, sovereignty, and force. On the other hand, they face these challenges at a time when they have only just begun to build their own national states, a process whose logic conflicts with that of globalization. It is not yet clear how these two tasks can be reconciled...


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pp. 65-70
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