>Post-communist democratization: Is your name.. Rumpelputin?


Late at night I’ve been sitting up reading: reading Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World (Cambridge University Press) edited high-powered US specialists on communism and post-communism. McFaul is now a senior advisor to the Obama presidency at the National Security Council. This new collection – available in paper and hardback and Kindle – basically tries to regime change in the former communist world into a new perspective by linking the collapse of one-party rule in 1989-1991 with more recent experiences of democratisation in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. As the editors argue in the opening chapterswe should think of postcommunist democratisation as three overlapping phases: 1) the breakdown of Communist Party rule in the late 1980s; 2) democratisation processes in 1990s driven by the prospect of EU membership, which stopped some new democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe sliding into semi-authoritarianism; and 3) more recent ‘coloured revolutions’ in the former USSR, which were triggered by electoral fraud in states without any clear prospect of joining the European Union.

And what’s more Michael McFaul suggests, theses three phases underline the role of the international system as a missing (or at least, under-played) variable which has shaped the different waves: the collapse of Soviet power and  its later re-emergence under Putin; the EU’s decision to enlarge Eastwards; and a growing US preoccupation with the ‘War on Terror’ after 2001. However, contributors differ in their views of precisely how – and how strongly – international influences have come to bear. Milada Anna Vachudova sees EU leverage on CEE’s more problem atic states as a key motor of liberalisation and reform, while– despite making points similar things in a slightly different language – Alina Mungiu-Pippdi at bottom claims that the EU’s political conditionalities were easily bypassed by anti-reform elites. Horizontal economic integration and broader European norms were, she claims, the important factors. Sadly, this is the type of domestic vs. European factors arguments that no one has convincing really worked out how to settle. Similarly, in his finely-researched chapter on Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution, McFaul is unable to conclude more than that US and international influences were indirect, although here one detects a certain politically inspired pulling of punches. There seems plenty of evidence in McFaul’s thoroughly researched chapter for arguing the case one way or other and if I was in the opposition in a semi-authoritarian state, I surely as hell would want USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy training my youth volunteers and election monitors and bunging a bit of cash to friendly NGOs.
As Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik note, changes the geo-political environments mattered because they altered the incentives of domestic actors and changed patterns of diffusion between states. Diffusion mechanisms – while always at work- evolved over time. Would-be democratic revolutionaries in Eastern Europe have been copying tactical innovations; drawing parallels between national contacts; and forming of collaborative networks since at least 1980, if not 1848. However, as various lcase study chapters on ‘electoral revolutions on  Slovakia (1998) and Serbia (2000), Georgia (2004), and Ukraine (2004) make clear by the millennium the transnational activist networks and election monitoring had become the key paths  for change.
However, post-communist authoritarians too have been learning lessons. As Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and Vitali study on Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Belarus – and Lucan Way’s comparison of post-Soviet authoritarianisms – show, an effective formula for blocking democratisation is at hand:  the key ingredients are well trained, well paid security forces; regaining  Soviet-era levels ofcontrol of the media and the economy; a well organised new ruling party backed by some kind of an ideological claim to legitimacy s Nevertheless, extreme weakness of post-Soviet state institutions can be a still more fundamental obstacle to democratisation: Scott Radnitz  illustrates the point bluntly in a chapter arguing that Kyrgyzstan’s repeated ‘electoral revolutions’ are more a sign of failed statehood than social pewssures for democratisatio.
As the book shows, despite the Year of Miracles in1989 – the dominant image of regime change for Western obsevers – post-communist transition  has most often been a story of failed or partial democratisation creating semi-democratic ‘hybrid regimes’, whose closed political systems, semi-open societies and corrupt public adminstration set the scene for further democratic upheavals. The net effect of such waves, however, has been a gradual polarisation of the region’s initially weak democratisers into consolidated (if low quality) democracies (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia) and consolidated autocracies (Russia, Belarus, Armenia).
As you would expect, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World offers a wide-ranging and sophisticated overview of South East European and post-Soviet democratisation By joining up Europeanisation, ‘electoral revolutions’ and transitions from one-party rule in 1989-1991, it offers an original perspective highlighting the unfolding of a kind of Kondratievian long wave of democratisation across a single region. However, I found explanation and description in the book were too often blurred. Many of the causal factors its contributors highlight beg more questions than they answer. Why were some authoritarian elites more united in the face of opposition? Why were some security and police apparatuses more cohesive? Oil, victory in neighbourhood wars and timing all seem to be part of the bigger story. Too often, however, we are left with accounts where wily authoritarians like Putin or Lukashenka appearing Rumpelstiltskin-like at the wrong moment.  If only they would disappear as easily.

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