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Lucan Way’s forthcoming book studies the reasons behind a society’s democratization in the post-Soviet space. Standard approaches have previously outlined the role of constitutional design, civil society, democratic values and culture, and the democratic leadership. Lucan Way argues that pluralism emerges out of weak authoritarian regimes rather than of democratic strength.
In his study which contains a substantial part on Ukraine, Way points to the first turnover in Ukraine that took place in 1994. In his memoirs of that time, Kravchuk mentions that he initially intended to shut down the Parliament and thus initiate for himself a scenario in which late presidential elections would be possible. However, because of state weakness, this was not feasible – police was not paid salaries in months and might have refused to execute orders.
Way’s book argues that among the sources of pluralism in the countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) are 1) the ruling party (weak – no ruling party or a colition of parties, strong – one well-organized party with strong ideology), 2) authoritarian state (weak or strong coercive and economic control), and 3) national identity (unified or divided). Underdeveloped ruling party facilitates elite defection and makes a strong opposition possible, while a weak authoritarian state and a divided national identity allow for a more effective mass mobilization for change.
In his book Way argues that Moldova and Ukraine have been more successful in democratization because they represent divided identities. This facilitated early nationalist and opposition mobilization by each side when they were out of power. Thus each turnover resulted in switching the side of identity in each country, while the regional element remains central to understanding mass protests.
In Belarus, however, Way shows, the national identity is only weakly divided, while Lukashenka centralized power in 1994-1996 and consolidated it effectively after 1996 (receiving strong support from Russia because of his significant Russophile identification, pursuing close integration with Russia). Leaders in Ukraine and Moldova could not afford such maneuvers without paying a heavy cost – Yanukovych’s example in 2013 illustrates it very well. Thus state building in Belarus facilitated greater control over coercion and economy, resulting in low political competition. The absence of a single state party in Ukraine and Moldova allowed for a higher political competition.
Way shows that the model holds true also in other countries of the former Soviet Union, with the only exception of Tadjikistan that has a very weak state but a highly authoritarian regime. Over time, however, competition decreased in 9 out of 12 FSU countries, and where state and party building were successful in the 1990s we encounter greater autocracy.
Therefore, Way argues in his book, to understand democratization, we need to look at the strength of authoritarian institutions – that is, whether a leader has the capacity to impose authoritarian rule. We ought to remember, however that what promotes political competition may also undermine economic reform.
Joshua Tucker opened the discussion of the main arguments of the book with a series of questions to its main assumptions. Tucker sees Way’s book as a highly important contribution to understand the regime types that outline transition and transformation in Post-Soviet societies. Some of the main questions that Tucker sees of primary concerns include the following:
In his response, Way stressed the importance of the voters’ role, but pointed out that it is the weakness of states the provides an opening for voters. At the same time, the weakness of the state is not measured by the regime’s ability to steal elections.
Dominique Arel entered the discussion by pointing out that the use of “ethnic” in the discussion of identities presents a trap in the Ukrainian case, because we noticed significant shifts in the configuration of identity in Ukraine after the Euromaidan revolution that transcended the ethnic dimension. Instead, perhaps we can make use of the term of cultural identity.
Anders Aslund raised the question of the underlying variables here of the model proposed by the book. Regions in questions here are the former Soviet Union and the Middle East – what is the role of availability of commodities in understanding authoritarian regimes.
Responding to the question, Way agreed that availability of commodities coincides with stability of regimes – for instance, some of the most stable authoritarian regimes have vast resources of oil, which allows them to consistently pay their functionaries and thus propel their state building and reduce democratization.
Thane Gustafson proposed to consider the political ineptness of Ukraine’s leaders: if they had been better politicians, we would not be talking about democratic Ukraine today. Way expressed his lack of ease in employing political inaptitude as a variable – examples of Kravchuk or Kuchma prove such attempts problematic, as they were considered in their time very skilled politicians and yet they failed to hold on to power for different reasons.
Joshua Tucker brought into questions whether the book rests on the assumption that all leaders in the post-Soviet space would want to be authoritarian if they had the chance. The alternative here would that there is something structural about the post-Soviet space that they all fall into it. Responding to this, Way pointed to empirical evidence that most of the post-Soviet leaders are autocrats – they abuse the system to stay in power.
Concluding the discussion, Jesse Driscoll cited the Georgian case and the strong foreign aid component. Considering the cases discussed in the book, the question of the role for international actors – as often invoked especially by the Russian media and political elite – is a valid one. Reacting to the question, Way made clear that the main actors in the cases he discusses in his book are domestic, while foreign actors play a secondary role in most cases.
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