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a special issue of the Carnegie Endowment’s Pro et Contra journal, which also included an article on Belarus that could not be published here due to space constraints.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