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  • Twenty Years of PostcommunismWhat's the Matter with Russia?
  • Lilia Shevtsova (bio)

Postcommunist states have taken shape differently depending on the development paths chosen by the elites of the former communist countries. The Central and East European states have restructured themselves with liberal democracy as their foundation. By contrast, Russia and most of the newly independent states on former Soviet territory have reverted to various forms of personalized power. It seems to me that two circumstances ensured the integration of "New Europe" into liberal Europe: the ability of the elites of New Europe to reach a consensus on building their new states based on European standards, and the European Union's readiness to accept New Europe into its fold.

Paradoxical though it may sound, the very fact of Russia's existence was invaluable in facilitating New Europe's transformation. The drive to escape the former suzerain laid the foundations of New European nationalism, which united left and right and legitimized the former Soviet satellite states' decision to set their course toward Europe—a destination that they could reach only by taking the liberal-democratic road. Equally paradoxical, even as the New Europeans sought sovereignty from Russia, they were willing to cede some of their newfound independence to Brussels.

The West, in turn—acting not so much out of altruism as out of a desire to guarantee its own security—was ready to expand and integrate into its civilization the former communist countries that separated Old Europe from an inscrutable Russia still struggling with its own complexes. New Europe's postcommunist history reveals an evolution that [End Page 152] has not been easy. Essays published in the Journal of Democracy show that all the Central and East European countries encountered problems along the way.1 But these were problems of how to put into practice the principles of liberal democracy. Nowhere was there ever a real question of abandoning the European rules of the game.

Russia's circumstances could not have been more different: In Russia, the elite proved unable to reach a consensus on the direction of the country's transformation and the form of the new state, and the West never even considered integrating Russia into its orbit. This former great power thus reverted to its traditional matrix and became a serious obstacle in the path of the newly independent states' transition to liberal democracy. What stopped Russia from breaking free of its past civilizational paradigm? What was the balance between inevitability and lost historical opportunity in Russia's case? Is there hope for a future transformation in Russia? And why did Russia's elite, unlike that of New Europe, not have the resolve to change the rules of the game? The confluence of several elements helped to set Russia's course: the influence of history; the challenges of the transformation process itself, which proved too great for the Russian elite; the importance of leadership; and certain political factors that worked in favor of a return to the past.

In Russia, the interests of the state have traditionally taken priority over those of the individual, and centralization of power has always been bolstered by territorial expansionism and messianic ideology. In order to perpetuate itself, the Russian centralized state requires both a global mission and the recognition of its great-power status by the international community. These aspirations to greatness in turn encourage further centralization, thus creating a vicious cycle. After the fall of communism, a new Russian elite, convinced that Russia can exist only as a superpower, reiterated this claim to greatness and, in so doing, prevented the country from embracing a new vision of the state and forming a new identity.

Russia missed out on the period of liberal constitutionalism, the Rechtsstaat, which in Europe brought recognition of the importance of the rule of law. Russia never had what Ralf Dahrendorf called "the hour of the lawyer." Even Russian liberals have been guided by political expediency rather than by rules, relying on leaders rather than on principles. Having had no "hour of the lawyer," Russian society has been unable successfully to move to the next stages of liberal transformation: "the hour of the economist" and "the hour...


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pp. 152-159
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