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Proximity to the West

The literature on democratization includes numerous works that investigate the influence of “neighborhood effects.” While distance from Vienna is not statistically significant in all specifications in the multivariate analysis, when it is significant the sign is in the expected direction. The postcommunist experience may support arguments that geographical location can influence regime outcomes. The bivariate correlation of 0.50 between distance from Vienna and democracy scores shows that proximity to the West might pose advantages for democratization. Generally speaking, countries that are closer to the “good neighborhood” of Western Europe do better than those in the less-good neighborhood of Inner Asia, abutting the Middle East and China.

Democratic neighbors are usually friendly to nearby democratic experiments. The dark spots in the United states’ checkered history of relations with Latin America notwithstanding, since the 1980s the US government has backed democratization in the hemisphere. It supported fledgling democratic regimes and reacted sternly to President Alberto Fujimori’s attack on Peru’s constitutional order in 1992.

In contrast, leaders of authoritarian regimes often feel threatened by people who show that popular rule can work next door. Autocrats always want their people to believe that democracy is unsuitable or unworkable. Thus, when Filipinos revolted against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and showed that democracy born of popular protest was possible in Asia, South Korea’s military rulers cracked down on opposition at home. Their ham-handed move only intensified calls for their departure, which happened the following year. In the post-communist region, we can understand Putin’s strenuous efforts to thwart democratization in Ukraine in terms of his anxiety about diffusion effects. A thriving open polity there would show Russians that democracy can work in a society that is a lot like their own.

Figure 1.4 shows the relationship between geographical location and regime outcomes. Given that the independent variable does not change over time, I present a scatter plot for a single year, 2012, to illustrate the point.

A strong correlation between westward location and performance on democracy is evident, but the outliers suggest that geography is not fate. Mongolia is again a dramatic overachiever. Sandwiched between democracy-despising behemoths, it is hard to imagine a country doing better in a worse neighborhood.

Geographical location and democracy, 2012

Fig. 1.4 Geographical location and democracy, 2012

Post-communist countries in Eastern Europe, on the other hand, enjoyed advantages of being in the “good neighborhood” of Western Europe. Especially important was the promise of membership in the European Union (EU). Elites and mass publics alike longed to join Europe and reap the economic benefits of EU membership. Since the EU requires that new entrants be democracies, the countries that had a shot at meeting the economic criteria for accession also had an incentive to hold free elections and uphold civil rights. The countries of the former USSR (plus Mongolia), excluding the Baltic states, did not have a good chance of meeting the economic criteria for membership, and therefore did not have the same incentives to meet the EU’s political standards (Dimitrova and Pridham 2004).

On the other end of the spectrum, in the lower-left portion of the scatter plot, we find Bosnia and Belarus, which have remained resistant to democracy despite their European location and, in the Bosnian case, despite being an EU “potential candidate” since 2003. The civil war in Bosnia and enduring intercommunal tensions may well have disfavored democracy. That said, the war ended in 1995, and Croatia and Serbia, which were also the sites of vicious ethnic conflict, evolved toward open politics once hostilities ceased. It is also possible to argue that nondemocratization has been as much of a cause as an effect of the persistence of intercommunal tensions. Bosnian politics and administration are structured by ethnicity and take place under the watchful eye of the High Representative. Given the opportunity to live in a democracy, it is possible - though by no means certain - that the people of Bosnia would be better able to create a truly multiethnic society rather than a society that is divided rigidly along ethnic lines. Democracies may provide better conditions than do authoritarian regimes for squarely addressing interethnic contention and hammering out agreements that make durable intercommunal comity possible.

Belarus, sometimes referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, has also proven impervious to international pressure for democratization. In Belarus, however, countervailing pressures from Russia may help explain the endurance of dictatorship. Neighborhood might matter, but Russia looms larger for Belarus than Europe. Democracy in Belarus would be a nightmare for Russia’s rulers, who prop up President Lukashenko with colossal energy subsidies that amount to about 15 percent of Belarus’s GDP (Alachonvic 2015). What is more, Belarus never had a chance at EU membership, keeping an important inducement to democracy off the table.

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