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The Failure of Democracy in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is clear that democracy has failed to take root in most former Soviet republics. Based on extensive field research in the region, Kennan Institute Title VIII-Supported Research Scholars Jody LaPorte and Danielle Lussier will discuss the varieties of non-democratic regimes that have developed and will offer some explanations for the failure of democracy in Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Date & Time

Jun. 12, 2012
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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The failure of democracy throughout much of post-Soviet Eurasia is perhaps best understood through the norms and practices outside of election season, according to Danielle Lussier, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Grinnell College, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, and Jody LaPorte, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Wittenberg University, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute. At a 12 June 2012 Kennan Institute seminar, Lussier described patterns in non-voting activism after elections in Russia, and LaPorte discussed how the Georgian, Azeri and Kazakh governments interacted with opposition parties and non-state organizations outside of elections.

Lussier contended that Russia’s failure as a democracy is an outlier. Given its wealth and education levels, when compared to states with similar levels it should be a democracy. Yet according to Freedom House’s yearly annual freedom index, which ranks the freedom of nations on a scale of 1 (free) to 7 (not free), Russia’s levels of freedom rose in the early 90s, but has since been in steady decline. This decline has stabilized, Lussier noted, at a level similar to levels of freedom during the late Soviet period.

Lussier argued that it is wrong to attribute the decline of freedom in Russia solely to traditional factors, such as the country’s historic preference for autocratic leaders, or the elite class’s ability to exploit natural resources in order to consolidate power and placate the populace with social spending. Rather, the populace’s lack of participation in non-voting social activities, which foster coalition-building and teach organizational skills, is the main reason for lessened freedom in Russia. Without such skills, the speaker noted, the public cannot organize to constrain elites—and it is the lack of constraints on elites from below that has led to a failure of democracy in Russia.

Patterns of “elite-enabling” and “elite-constraining” activities shape elections and voting everywhere, according to Lussier. “Elite-constraining” activities include forming and building opposition parties, and criticizing and protesting the leading political elite. These actions force political leaders to defend their positions and rethink their options, while also constraining elites in order to ensure that they follow the letter of the law and uphold the ideals of democratic government. By contrast, “elite-enabling” activities build up a reliance on local public officials to fix local problems. This relationship is not necessarily democratic, but does require local officials to solve problems in return for local support.

Elite-constraining activities peaked at the end of the Soviet period and declined afterwards. The speaker added that most elite-constraining activities were episodic: most Russians were involved in protest activities only one time, and young people were the least–engaged demographic involved in protest activities. The decline in elite-constraining activity preceded drops in democratic freedoms, rather than following them.

Lussier expressed doubt about the future of activism and opposition in Russia. The protests of December 2011 and later were the largest in twenty years, and have continued on a smaller scale throughout the country. Yet, while Russia has taken some promising steps such as a limited restoration of gubernatorial elections; progress on combating certain kinds of fraud; and restraint by police forces against protestors, the speaker observed heightened coercion in the form of huge fines for unscheduled rallies and the search and seizure of activists’ property by police. Lussier cited several factors limiting the future impact of the protests. The Russian political system maintains onerous burdens for new parties to register for political office and financing opposition parties remains difficult. Systemic and non-systemic opposition forces are divided, as the political opposition in the Duma does not want to be identified with protesters, while protestors generally distrust Duma politicians. Despite these challenges, the protests have created new, dynamic interactions between the popular and elite in Russia, and Lussier concluded the outcome is very much in doubt

Democracy has failed, LaPorte contended, in all but three former Soviet states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, comprising only 1% of the former Soviet peoples. The thirteen other states have failed to live up to their democratic aspirations. “Not all authoritarian regimes work in the same way,” Laporte observed, and in order to differentiate the post-Soviet regimes, she studied the treatment of the political opposition by governments between elections. “Democracy extends beyond elections,” LaPorte stressed, therefore these interim periods were often predictive in understand the future stability of regimes and a good measure of the political freedoms of their citizens.

LaPorte compared three nations—Georgia from 1995-2003, Azerbaijan from 1995-2010, and Kazakhstan from 1995-2010--to illustrate differences in regime actions between elections. In Georgia, the state’s reaction to its opposition was intermittent and seemingly random, with the government scolding journalists and opposition parties in private and through the media. In Azerbaijan, state response, or repression, was triggered by opposition parties broaching certain controversial topics and was intended to discourage opposition through judicial punishments. Finally, state response in Kazakhstan was consistent and immediate, with reprisals against any sign of opposition to the government.

These differences, LaPorte explained, are in part described by the nature of opposition in each country. While Georgia and Azerbaijan, both simmering with ethnic rivalries, already had pre-existing opposition in their countries from the glasnost period, Kazakhstan did not. Another factor influencing those differences is the varying patterns of corruption in each nation. While Georgian elites in office are dependent on patronage from society in the form of bribes, in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan governing elites capture rents from the oil and natural gas sectors.

The failure of democracy in post-Soviet Eurasia does not start at the ballot box. According to Lussier and LaPorte, it is more important to understand social organizations, or the lack of organization, and the conditions that underpin state response to society.

By Max Votey
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 

The Kennan Institute speaker series is made possible through the generous support of the Title VIII Program of the U.S. Department of State.


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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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