While the new nation- and state-building processes in the former Soviet Union draw opportunistically on Soviet heritage, a new nationalism is drawing the states of the region inexorably further from each other and their shared past. The authors of this issue of Pro et Contra analyze the political systems that have arisen in the post-Soviet space.
An Entropic or a Cohesive Region?
The states that appeared on the territory of the former USSR inherited from their common ancestor a particular mode of authoritative dominance. The overriding goal of such a system of power is to maintain the permanence of the ruling elite and their absolute control over key national economic assets. When compared to the Soviet system, economic and political fields have shifted, but the mechanisms of social interaction and elite behavior remain unchanged.
Armenia Between Autocracy and Polyarchy
The country’s poverty encouraged the tight intertwining of business and politics. Entering the upper echelons of Armenian business, integrated into the system of “veteran” relations, a representative of the new Armenian economy finds himself in an extremely competitive environment, in which there are few resources, highly limited export and import channels, and a narrow market. Businessmen are forced into a constant search for consensus amongst themselves, the easiest mechanism for the achievement of which is the state.
Authoritarianism Without Oligarchy
The Belarusian political system under Lukashenko has maximized its benefit from the ongoing geopolitical standpoint between the West and Russia. The regime’s stability is further bolstered by the incompleteness of the Belarusian nation-building project, which hampers the political crystallization of Belarusian society and, thus, the emergence of alternative leaders. Western policy has also done a great service to the Belarusian regime, actively applying double standards and ignoring the impact that the actions and rhetoric of Western governments and international organizations have in Belarus itself.
Moldova is something of a paradox. It is one of the poorest states in Europe, with a secessionist conflict on its territory, with a large rural population, and yet it is virtually the most democratic state in the post-Soviet space (except for the Baltics). In its short history, Moldova had avoided most of the extremes of other post-Soviet states. It has never had a consolidated authoritarian regime. Nor did it have “color revolutions” as in Georgia and Ukraine.
Ukraine: Pluralism “by Default,” Revolution, Thermidor
The surprising (to many) “Orange” revolution, early elections, coalition collapses and scandalous standoffs have combined to create an image of Ukrainian politics as a zero-sum game, not a race to the finish, but a fight to the death. To date, however, even in moments of the greatest crisis Ukraine has always managed to back away from the abyss, avoid violent conflict and reach a compromise. Will this balance be maintained under President Yanukovich, or will the country drift towards the “Russian model”?
Doomed to Eternity and Stagnation
The regimes of Central Asia—which, truth be told, are not plural, but rather modifications of a single authoritarian regime—have over their 20-year histories withstood the test of time. Central-Asian authoritarianism has been sorely tested by socio-political upheaval, Islamist radicalism and internal squabbling. But this authoritarianism in all cases proved its political worth: it survived and provided for relative stability in the states of the region. Nowhere in Central Asia has anyone been able to put forward a real and publicly understandable alternative.
Paradoxes of the New Authoritarianism
Russia is an interesting case because it highlights the key features of the new competitive authoritarianism. Russia’s regime is only moderately repressive. Putin’s authoritarianism is a “vegetarian” one. While political repression exists, it is fair to say that most Russians today are freer than in any other period of their history. They can travel, they can freely surf the Web—unlike in China or Iran—and they can do business if they pay their “corruption tax.” Unlike the Soviet Union, which was a self-contained society with closed borders, Russia is an open economy with open borders.
The Past in Russian Presidential Rhetoric
Criticism of the past, and comparing and contrasting it with the present and the future, is a more prominent and clear attribute of presidential addresses than the image of “our glorious past,” meant to serve as a source of optimism and a fulcrum for gaining leverage on current issues. By emphasizing criticism of the recent past and refusing to expand its “operational” repertoire through a reevaluation of problematic passages of older history, the ruling elite are reproducing the old cultural algorithm of “breaking with tradition.” But, in contrast to the Petrine and Soviet upheavals, which brought major shifts in world-view, there is no basis for such a break at present.
In Search of Lost Genocide
Breaking walls, opening borders, and holding elections proved to be substantially easier than constructing identities, congruent with the unifying spirit of the first post-communist days. Faced with the challenges of independent statehood and haunted by legacies of the not so distant, but silenced past, many post-1989 elites view historical and political narratives of suffering and victimhood as an important component of the state building process. Taken to its extreme, the logic of victimhood led to the “search of lost genocide” throughout the region.
Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: A Discussion of the Events of a Day of Horror
The polarization that emerged during the discussion of Jedwabne ten years ago remains. Still today, some believe that recognizing the dark pages of national history is a reflection of social maturity and a moral obligation, while others are convinced that defending the good name of the people is a fundamental obligation of patriotism. Because both positions are founded not on empirical knowledge, but on principles of worldview, it would be a mistake to believe that they could be altered by historical study.
Walter Laqueur, Viktor Shnirelman, Sergey Kravchenko