Post-Soviet Political Systems: Editor’s Introduction

This issue considers how the political systems of the post-Soviet states function. The articles all come from a special issue of the Carnegie Endowment’s Pro et Contra journal, which also included an article on Belarus that could not be published here due to space constraints. The issue forms a natural continuation of the previous issue, which examined the functioning of Russia’s present-day political system.

In “Disintegrating Community or Coherent Region?” Andrei Ryabov sets the stage for the country-specific articles by examining the extent to which the states that formerly made up the Soviet Union can still be considered to constitute a coherent political region. At first glance, it seems that these countries’ political and socioeconomic systems have diverged too far from one another to regard them as belonging to a single unit. The countries also do not share a common foreign policy, a unifying ideology, or even good communication and transportation links with one another.

Nevertheless, Ryabov finds that the former Soviet states do constitute a single region because they have all inherited from their common ancestor a particular mode of authoritarian dominance that has remained a common feature throughout the region’s political systems. In his overall assessment, the current situation in the former Soviet Union is a complex social phenomenon: “on the one hand, there is continuing fragmentation and distancing from the former center; on the other hand, certain shared features of development persist.” Ryabov labels this system post-Soviet capitalism. According to his analysis, the overriding goal of such a system of power is to maintain the permanence of the ruling elite and its absolute control over key national economic assets. When compared to the Soviet system, Ryabov finds that although economic and political fields have shifted, the mechanisms of social interaction and elite behavior have remained largely unchanged.

Aleksandr Iskandaryan focuses his analysis on “Armenia Between Autocracy and Polyarchy.” He finds that in Armenia, a situation of natural resource scarcity has given rise to control of the state by a coalition of representatives of merchant and manufacturing capital that includes regional princelings and state bureaucrats. The country’s poverty encouraged the tight intertwining of business and politics. Players in the upper echelons of the economic system find themselves in an extremely competitive environment, in which there are few resources, highly limited export and import channels, and a narrow market. Members of the elite have been forced into a constant search for consensus among themselves and have quickly determined that the easiest way to reach such an agreement is by seeking to take control of state structures, including the parliament and the presidency.

While this system is similar to those found in other post-Soviet states, the Armenian political system does have some unique aspects that derive from the crucial role played by the Karabakh conflict in its formation and development. Iskandaryan describes how the Karabakh conflict led to the domination of a particular segment of the liberal intelligentsia in the early years of Armenia’s post-Soviet political development. In subsequent years, this elite was gradually replaced by veterans of the Karabakh war, who had come to dominate in both politics and business by the end of the 1990s, creating a system that resembled feudal fiefdoms in its nature. With the passage of time, these veterans are beginning to fade away, and the system is gradually coming to resemble more closely those of the other post-Soviet states.

In discussing “Moldova’s Fragile Pluralism,” Nicu Popescu presents Moldova as “something of a paradox.” On the one hand, it is one of the poorest states in Europe, with a large rural population and a long-running (though frozen) secessionist conflict on its territory. But at the same time, it has the highest indicators of democracy among the post-Soviet states outside the Baltics. Popescu shows that in its short history Moldova has avoided most of the extremes of other post-Soviet states. It has a long and uninterrupted history of peaceful transfers of power from the government to the opposition through elections. The lack of natural resources and the consequent dispersal of economic power have played a role in preventing the takeover of the state by a consolidated business elite, as has happened in the vast majority of post-Soviet states. The country’s foreign policy orientation toward the European Union has also played a helpful role in promoting and preserving Moldovan democracy.

Some of the unique features of Moldova’s system of political institutions have prevented the establishment and consolidation of an authoritarian regime. Efforts to establish authoritarian rule failed on two occasions because of the power given to the parliament by the country’s constitution. Although the Communist Party ruled the country for almost a decade, it was unable to translate its dominance into permanent control of the political system. Its peaceful acquiescence to electoral defeat was yet another step on the road to democratic consolidation.

In “Ukraine: Pluralism by Default, Revolution, Thermidor,” Olexiy Haran considers how Ukraine has managed to avoid the consolidation of an authoritarian state. He argues that the rowdy and unpredictable nature of Ukrainian politics—including such events as the Orange Revolution, the frequent collapse of governing coalitions and subsequent early elections, and regular physical confrontations in the parliament—have created an impression of Ukrainian politics as a zero-sum game. Until recently, however, even during the most acute crises, Ukraine always managed to pull back from the edge of the abyss, avoid violent confrontation, and reach a compromise. Haran asks whether this balance is likely to be maintained under President Yanukovych or if the country is fated to drift toward the more authoritarian Russian model.

Unlike the Russian authorities, the Ukrainian authorities have not been able to create a social base for authoritarianism through the use of cheap raw materials and the idea of state grandeur. Ukraine faces a number of internal divisions, including ones based on language and region. As a result of a combination of a dearth of natural resources and a dominant cultural cleavage, the economic system is much more decentralized than in Russia. The political system includes parties that represent these various business elites. Whenever a single clan has seemed to secure a dominant role, splits develop as members of other clans united to prevent the leading group from establishing complete control. Haran argues that a similar scenario may develop over time to reduce the power now held by President Yanukovych.

The final article in the issue reviews the condition and prospects of the five Central Asian states. The title of Aleksei Malashenko’s article, “Doomed to Eternity and Stagnation,” makes clear that he sees few signs of hope for these countries. The authoritarian regimes of Central Asia are characterized by Malashenko as modifications of a single authoritarian regime, and one that has over the last twenty years withstood the test of time. Central Asian authoritarianism has been sorely tested by socio-political upheaval, Islamist radicalism, and internal squabbling. But this authoritarianism has continually proved its political worth: it has 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.

Because the authoritarian Central Asian regimes lack the necessary conditions for even partial democratization, Malashenko argues that while “the political weather may change in Central Asia, . . . the authoritarian ‘climate’ will remain the same.” Neither the local political elites nor the most influential outside actors have any interest in promoting real democratization, as they fear that it would only lead to instability and conflict.

The articles in this issue show that despite the vast divergence in the political development of post-Soviet states in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries still share some core commonalities. The primary shared aspect is a set of similar relationships across the region between political and economic elites, with the latter frequently turning to control of the state to ensure that they can maintain their dominant positions in their countries’ economic systems. This has most often resulted in state capture by one or more sets of business groups, who have attempted, usually successfully, to create a set of political institutions with a dominant executive branch that they hope will act to ensure their continued political dominance.

In this environment, the likelihood of a systemic change is fairly low. The color revolutions have shown that even in cases where these elites are removed from power, the long-term outcome is simply their replacement by a different set of elites. An enduring change would require the establishment of a new and more balanced set of political institutions. As Ukraine’s recent experience has shown, this is a difficult process that is much easier to reverse than it is to initiate.

Russian Politics and Law, July 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 4 / July-August 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site at

This issue contains:

Post-Soviet Political Systems: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Disintegrating Community or Coherent Region?  p. 7
Andrei Ryabov
Armenia Between Autocracy and Polyarchy  p. 23
Aleksandr Iskandaryan
Moldova’s Fragile Pluralism  p. 37
Nicu Popescu
Ukraine: Pluralism by Default, Revolution, Thermidor  p. 51
Olexiy Haran
Doomed to Eternity and Stagnation  p. 73
Aleksei Malashenko

Russian Politics and Law, September 2011 Table of Contents

Volume 49 Number 5 / September-October 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the M.E. Sharpe web site at

This issue contains:

Ukraine After Yushchenko: Editor’s Introduction p.3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Change, Transition, or Cycle: The Dynamics of Ukraine’s Political Regime in 2004-2010
Yuri Matsievski
Post-Soviet Gravitation: On the Results of the Presidential Elections in Ukraine p.34
Andrei Ryabov
The Language of Dystopia: The Ideological Situation in Ukraine p.43
Mikhail Minakov
Ukraine’s European Choice: What It Means for Russia p.55
Sergei Tigipko
The Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Counterrevolution p.68
Vladimir Pastukhov
Orange Pills for Russian Diseases p.81
Igor’ Pantin

Ukraine After Yushchenko: Editor’s Introduction

Over the last decade, Ukrainian politics has been characterized by its volatility. The Orange Revolution brought hope of a rapid democratization, although these hopes were soon dashed because of divisions among the governing coalition. Finally, in 2010, a population that was tired of the political instability elected Viktor Yanukovych as president. Although there were concerns about the rollback of various rights and freedoms, Yanukovych’s promise of stability was convincing for the majority of the electorate.

This issue of Russian Politics and Law provides a range of viewpoints on Ukrainian political dynamics over the last few years. Some authors see the 2004 events as a true revolution, while others argue that it was not one because the country’s political system did not undergo any kind of fundamental transformation. The extent to which the authors see the Yanukovych presidency as potentially threatening to Ukrainian democracy also varies.

In “Change, Transition, or Cycle: The Dynamics of Ukraine’s Political Regime in 2004–10,” Yuri Matsievski sets the agenda for the issue. He argues that democratization inUkrainehas followed a zigzag course. He situates his analysis of Ukrainian politics in the international political science literature on regimes and revolutions. He describes the Ukrainian political system under Kuchma as a pyramid of informal, institutionalized rules for exercising power. Though the president was at the top of the pyramid, he had not succeeded in fully subordinating other members of the political and economic elite, allowing for a degree of political pluralism that resulted in the establishment of several competing political camps financed by various financial–industrial groups.

Matsievski then turns to the question of whether the Orange Revolution was truly a revolution or even a real change of political regime. Here, he is firmly in the camp of those scholars who argue that the events of November–December 2004 were by no means a revolution. He argues that they were not even a coup. Instead, he describes these events as a regular rotation of elites. Because the opposition elites used public protest as part of their campaign strategy, the outcome appeared to be the fall of the old regime. In reality, the positive results of the change of leadership brought about by the Orange Revolution were modest and in some respects temporary and did not amount to a change of political regime.

Under Yushchenko, the regime shifted from Kuchma’s oligarchic authoritarianism to a defective democracy that was lacking in political participation, political competition, and adherence to constitutional norms. The new leaders were unable or unwilling to rein in corruption in the political system and spent more time battling each other than conducting sorely needed political reforms. Like Kuchma’s team, Yushchenko and his colleagues focused on using their power to extract profits rather than improve governance. Matsievski argues that despite a few superficial reforms, the political system continued to be dominated by informal rules, rather than formal institutions.

At the same time, Matsievski believes that the limits on political centralization that prevented the consolidation of authoritarianism under Kuchma and hindered Yushchenko’s efforts to reform the political system will also prevent the establishment of a power vertical under the Yanukovych presidency. The same structural and procedural limitations that hindered movement toward democracy in 2005–10 will also prevent a slide toward authoritarianism from going too far.

Matsievski spells out five factors that will hinder the consolidation of authoritarianism under Yanukovych. First, the powers of the president are much reduced compared to the Kuchma period. Second, freedom of the press has been institutionalized to a much greater extent over the last five years. Third, the state has neither an effective apparatus of compulsion nor a professional bureaucracy. Fourth, societal cleavages prevent any sense of national unity from emerging. And fifth, neither the West nor Russia would benefit from having an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. As a result, while Ukraine will continue to suffer from administrative arbitrariness and corruption, it is not threatened by authoritarian consolidation.

In “Post-Soviet Gravitation: On the Results of the Presidential Elections in Ukraine,” Andrei Ryabov largely concurs with Matsievski’s assessment. He argues that despite the tone of the discussion in the press at the time, the 2010 presidential election was not actually a choice between a European and democratic path of development and the preservation of the post-Soviet model. Both leading candidates were actually representatives of the post-Soviet model who were focused on the division of resources rather than on national development. Yushchenko, in contrast, had tried to implement the political de-Sovietization and Europeanization of Ukraine, at least in the realm of foreign policy. He failed because most Ukrainians did not want to see themselves as a postcolonial nation. Furthermore, most Ukrainians had lost faith in their country’s ability to become truly European in the near term.

In this context, most voters understood that both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych had authoritarian leanings. The difference is described by one of Ryabov’s friends: “If Tymoshenko wins, things will be bad, and for a very long time. If Yanukovych wins, things will be very bad, but for a short time.” In this context, a majority of the electorate preferred a relatively weak president who will lead a government beholden to various lobbying interests to a strong populist president who might succeed in establishing an authoritarian state. In other words, Ryabov is essentially arguing that Ukrainian domestic politics under Yanukovych is likely to resemble the political situation under Kuchma.

Mikhail Minakov’s article, “The Language of Dystopia: The Ideological Situation in Ukraine,” examines Ukrainian political discourse. Minakov shows how this discourse has come to be dominated by a language that facilitates state control over a static confrontation between regionally based conservatisms, each rooted in its own historically conditioned sense of what Minakov calls ressentiment. “Ressentiment is a component of collective memory, a sort of pain of remembrance whose cause is articulated in terms of some actual, inescapably but unjustly co-present Other.” The author argues that as long as society is focused on past trauma, the state can continue to exercise control over the country. The best way out of this situation is to strengthen nonconservative political forces and social institutions that promote rationality.

The thesis that there are certain basic continuities toUkraine’s political trajectory over the last decade is reinforced in Sergei Tigipko’s article “Ukraine’s European Choice: What It Means for Russia.” Tigipko was an also-ran in the 2010 presidential election before becoming vice-premier for economic issues in the Azarov government. He argues that for Ukraine, political and economic integration with the European Union is an immutable strategic choice. At the same time, Ukraine will continue to pursue a multi­directional foreign policy that should allow Russia to see Ukraine’s leaning toward Europe as an opportunity rather than a threat. Tigipko sees Yushchenko’s foreign policy efforts as focused less on bringing Ukraine into Europe as on tearing it away from Russia. Instead, he argues for Ukraine’s potential as a bridge between Russia and Europe. To this end, he calls for a balanced foreign policy that pursues close relations with both.

Writing in a Russian publication, Tigipko argues for a close partnership between Ukraine and Russia, but one that is based on relative equality. He points out that integration that is based on a Russian takeover of key Ukrainian industries is unacceptable to Kiev. He goes on to claim that Russia needs to change its mentality, to stop treating Ukraine as a lesser country that can be ordered around by Russian leaders. He concludes by noting that Ukraine has already made its European choice and that in the end, Russia will also inevitably make the same choice.

Vladimir Pastukhov continues the theme of Ukraine’s relations with Russia but shifts the focus to domestic developments. In “The Ukrainian Revolution and the Russian Counterrevolution,” he argues that the Orange Revolution fundamentally transformed Ukrainian society. This argument is directly opposed to the first two articles in this issue. He notes that in 2010 Yanukovych is a fundamentally different politician from the one elected in 2004. Although his initial policies focused on restoring relations with Russia, the course he is now pursuing is actually focused on promoting Ukrainian national interests. To this end, Pastukhov argues that Yanukovych has gained much more than his counterparts from his initial agreements with Moscow.

In the second half of his article, Pastukhov makes the argument that Russian leaders who were haunted by the threat of a Ukrainian-style revolution implemented a series of measures that made the Russian political system dysfunctional in much the same way as the Ukrainian system was dysfunctional prior to the Orange Revolution. Just as the Ukrainian political system became rational, with conflicts being resolved openly, the Russian political system ceased to be able to react to challenges by seeking to prevent any possibility of conflict. The likely result is an increasing threat of revolution, the very thing Russian leaders were trying to avoid. The lessons Pastukhov draws from Ukrainian politics are that an unstable political system increases competition, active measures to protect against revolution are likely to cause one, and that the best way to avoid a revolution from below is to carry out a revolution from above.

In “Orange Pills for Russian Diseases,” Igor’ Pantin takes issue with Pastukhov’s analysis. He opposes Pastukhov’s description of the Orange Revolution as a revolution, pointing out that Yushchenko’s excessive focus on Ukrainian nationalism led the majority of the population to turn to Yanukovych in the 2010 election. What’s more, he thinks Pastukhov exaggerates when he thinks the Orange Revolution led Russian leaders to initiate measures to strengthen their power. Pantin also takes issue with the lessons Pastukhov draws from the Ukrainian experience. He points out that Russia already had experience with an unstable political system in the 1990s—which was not a great time for Russia. He also does not think that a revolution from above is capable of solving Russia’s political problems. For Pantin, the only solution is a political movement from below that can renew Russian governance without revolution.

The first year of Yanukovych’s presidency has shown the wisdom of Matsievski’s assessment. While there have been some efforts on the part of the government to restrict freedoms and to limit political challenges to the regime, the Ukrainian political system remains far more open and contested than that of Russia or other post-Soviet states (other than the three Baltic states and Moldova). At the same time, the ease with which Yanukovych returned to power after seemingly being completely discredited during the Orange Revolution shows that that event was a revolution in name only and did not result in fundamental political or social changes in Ukraine.


Russian Politics and Law, May 2011 Table of Contents

Andrei Ryabov

The Future of the Russian Political System: Editor’s Introduction

In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, we continue the analysis of the current state of Russia’s political system that we began in the previous issue. Whereas the previous issue analyzed the development of the system and its character, the authors in this issue focus on the system’s stability, particularly in the context of the 2008–9 global economic crisis. The crisis briefly shook the confidence of Russian political elites, and this is reflected in several of the articles printed here. The period of severe economic crisis proved to be relatively brief in Russia, however, and by early 2010 leading politicians had regained their confidence and largely ended various experiments in liberalization that had been undertaken when the economic situation was at its worst. Continue reading