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Regime Change and Political Trajectory

How were these different patterns of regime change significant in shaping the subsequent course of regime development? Essentially the patterns established at the outset set the broad course for subsequent developments: generally democracy was more likely where popular forces had an important part to play in establishing the initial outlines ofrule; where those forces were weaker, the greater the likelihood ofauthoritarian rule; and where they were practically non-existent, a stronger form of authoritarianism appeared. The mechanism whereby this worked is that, in most cases, ruling political elites have little incentive to adopt a democratic form of government which will cast their tenure into doubt unless they are pressured to do so by popular forces from below. Such popular forces are likely to press for democratic reform to open the system up for their own participation; where they are weak or non-existent, elites have little reason to introduce a structure that would place their positions in jeopardy. This is particularly the case in a context like the FSU where elites had little practical experience of effective democratic practices and procedures and little real commitment to these. This process is clearly reflected in the experience of the states in the FSU.

In the countries in Model 1, the Baltic republics where popular forces drove regime change and dominated in the immediate post-fall conditions, reformist political elites and emergent parties generally cooperated to sideline representatives of the old regime and to build a democratic system. They established parliamentary systems with regular free and fair elections, and welcomed the influence and advice that the EU countries in particular were all too willing to give. Thus, from the outset, the system was open to popular forces.

In the countries in Model 4 (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) where popular forces were particularly weak at the time of the fall of the USSR, old regime elites were able to consolidate themselves in power, close off the system to the entry of new political forces, and generally institute an authoritarian style of rule. This involved the harassment and repression of opposition forces, the exertion of pressure on civil society and the hampering of its development, and the closing out of potential democratizing influences from the West. This was not always achieved without incident; the civil war in Tajikistan and the so-called Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan in 2005 are the two most important cases of opposition to the rulers occurring under these regimes, but generally the authorities have been able to keep popular mobilization under control. The willingness to use force in the face of such action has been an important factor underpinning this sort of regime development. In the absence of popular constraint, political elites built authoritarian polities.

For the countries in the other two models, the situation was more complex. In the countries in Model 2 (Armenia, Georgia and Moldova), the popular movements that were instrumental in regime change split, but not in a way that generated viable political parties. The split in each case was between the president and much of the popular movement, with presidential aspirations for enhanced powers being instrumental (but not alone) in this. The consequent struggle was not resolved through the electoral process, although both sides at times sought to mobilize popular support for their positions, with the result that these conflicts did not contribute to the building of viable political parties or a vibrant civil society. Furthermore, the presence of armed irredentist conflicts (plus the civil war in Georgia) created a context for the development of public politics that was not conducive to the emergence of democracy. The strongly authoritarian elements that were evident in these polities retained a prominent position, in the case of Georgia notwithstanding the colour revolution of 2003. That such authoritarian trends did not become allpowerful and drive democratic elements completely from the scene simply reflects the fact that no elite was in a position to be able to establish hard authoritarian rule had they wished to do so, with the result that these countries were hybrids of the democratic and authoritarian.

In the countries in Model 3 (Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Ukraine), where popular forces were so weak that they played little part in the regime change, the political elite that inherited power was itself split between old regime elements and reformist forces, with many people ranged between. The weakness of popular pressure on the elites meant that it was largely within the hands of those elites to determine the sort of political system that would exist in the country. The balance of forces in each case was sufficient to ensure that, in the first decade of independence at least, neither side could gain the complete ascendancy, with the result that the regimes that emerged had a combination of democratic and authoritarian elements, although as Table 3.1 suggests (except for Ukraine) the weight of the authoritarian was heavier than in the countries in Model 2.

The continuing importance of the circumstances of regime change is reflected in the data in Table 3.1. In 8 of the 15 countries, the designation that country had in 1992 was repeated in 2001 and 2015, meaning that although there may have been changes to the way the system worked (perhaps reflected in different numerical scores in some of the intervening years not shown here), these were essentially changes within the same regime type. Three countries that began as ‘not free’ remained ‘not free’—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Four remained as ‘partly free’ - Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - while Lithuania retained the ‘free’ epithet throughout. In the other seven countries, there was a subsequent change in regime type. In five of these, the designation as at 2001 was repeated in 2015, meaning that there was no change of regime type in that time; ‘not free’ on both occasions were Azerbaijan, Belarus and Kazakhstan, while Estonia and Latvia were ‘free’ at both times. In two cases, there was a change in regime type from 2001 to 2015: Kyrgyzstan went from ‘not free’ to ‘partly free’, following the overthrow of Akaev by the colour revolution, and Russia moved from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’, reflecting the coming to power of Putin. This shows a significant level of broad continuity, particularly if the 1992 designation is considered the default given that it is the first year after the collapse of the USSR and real trends had not yet emerged. This pattern is clearly consistent with the argument that the circumstances of the fall of the Soviet Union, and in particular the shape ofthe constellation offorces that came into power at that time, was crucial in shaping subsequent regime trajectories. The elites in power built the sort ofpolitical system that best served their interests, democratic where those elites were connected with and thereby influenced by the mass of the populace through social movements and political parties, authoritarian systems where they were not thus connected.

This is not a determinist argument. Had, for example, Gamsakhurdia or Ter-Petrossian been different types of personalities, the dominance of the social movements they headed may have been the pathway to a more democratic polity. Had Yeltsin called immediate elections, the dispute with the parliament may not have eventuated and the basis for a more democratic polity may have emerged. Had Vytautus Landsbergis in Lithuania been more autocratically inclined, the smooth path in that country may have been disrupted. Had irredentist conflicts not existed in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, the path of political development may have been different. But these contingent factors did not exist, and in their absence the structuring effects of the circumstances of regime change seem undeniable.

A recent study by Henry Hale (2015) is consistent with this thesis. Hale argues that, with the exception of the Baltic states, all of the states of the FSU developed as ‘patronal polities’ where the currency of politics was personal association rather than formal institutions or ideologies. His argument is that, with the fall of the USSR, leading politicians (including in parliamentary Moldova) (Hale 2015, chapter 10) set up pyramids of power shadowing and overlapping with the official power structure through which they ran the country.5 He posited a particular cycle of development whereby if the leader was perceived as a ‘lame duck’ and/or suffered a significant drop in popular support, he became vulnerable to challenge and overthrow, including from within his machine. Hale argues this sort of situation existed in all cases of presidential overthrow during the period: Ter-Petrossian in Armenia (1998), Shevardnadze in Georgia (2003), Kuchma-Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine (2004), Akaev in Kyrgyzstan (2005), Kurmanbek Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan (2010), Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia (2013), and Yanukovych in Ukraine (2014) (Hale 2015, pp. 181-278). Although this meant the overthrow of the political ‘boss’, it did not mean either a change in regime type or the destruction of the way in which politics was structured. Despite some apparent opening up ofthe regime after such leadership changes, these were temporary and the structures of patronal politics reasserted themselves (although it may be too early for a definitive judgement about the second Ukrainian case). Those who gained power at the outset, used that power to build the sort of systems that they wanted.

We do not have to accept all of Hale’s elegant framework to recognize that there has been significant continuity in the authoritarian structures of post-Soviet government throughout much of the FSU and that this continuity is a result of the way political elites have structured post-Soviet political life. Crucial in this has been the forces at work at the time of the fall of the USSR. Where mass-based forces were active and powerful, the outcome has tended to be more democratic; where those forces were weak or non-existent, the result has been authoritarian. This pattern applies regardless of differences in levels of economic reform and privatization. The primary driving force in the construction of the various types of polities has thus been the correlation of forces at the time of independence, and the consequent level of restraint that could prevent authoritarian elites from building and maintaining non-democratic regimes. This may be seen as a continuing legacy of the USSR into the present and future.

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