The defeat of the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow marked one of the most euphoric moments in Russian history. For centuries dictators had ruled Russia using force to suppress and at times annihilate society. Emboldened by liberalization under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian society organized to resist this use of force by Kremlin dictators. To be sure, all of Russia did not rise up against the coup plotters; only citizens in major cities mobilized. Yet, the ripple effects of this brave stance against tyranny in Moscow and St. Petersburg proved pivotal in destroying communism, dismantling the Soviet empire, and ending the Cold War. By December 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

The end of the Soviet dictatorship, however, did not lead immediately or smoothly to the creation of democracy in either Russia or in most of the other newly independent states that emerged after the USSR’s collapse. In the wake of the exciting aftermath of a new wave of democratic transitions in East Central Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, scholars of democratization anticipated a similar process in these new post-Soviet states that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fifteen years later, democracy is still struggling to take hold in the region. In the initial wave of regime change, the three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—made the jump from communist rule to democratic consolidation relatively easily but they were the exception in the region, not the rule. Post-communist dictatorship quickly replaced communist dictatorship in most of Central Asia while border disputes, the challenges of economic transformation, and the lingering legacies of communist institutions produced unconsolidated, semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian regimes in the Caucasus, the Slavic states, and Moldova. In these countries, the momentum for democratization stopped long before the framework of liberal democracy emerged. By the end of the 1990s these regimes seemed permanently stuck in a twilight zone, trapped somewhere between dictatorship and democracy.
Explaining the First Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship
Of the many countries undergoing democratization in Latin America and southern Europe in the two decades before the Soviet collapse, the most successful cases were “pacted” transitions. Pacts were constructed between soft-liners in the ancien regime and moderates in civil society. They were designed, as Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter explain in Transitions from Authoritarianism: Tentative Conclusions, to “limit the agenda of policy choice, share proportionately in the distribution of benefits, and restrict the participation of outsiders in decision-making.” These pacts most often occurred when the distribution of power between the forces for change and against change was relatively equal.

This pattern did not occur in the new states of the former Soviet Union. Instead of negotiations and compromise between leaders in the old Soviet regime and new democratic challengers, there was a breakdown of the state and conflict between opposing forces in the Soviet republics. Rather than pacts, one side—the powerful side—dictated the new political rules. If the powerful were democrats, then the rules were democratic. If the powerful were autocrats, then the rules were autocratic. When the distribution of power between “democrats” and “autocrats” was relatively equal, an unstable regime emerged as successful negotiations between these two sides failed to occur.
Democratic Transition: The Baltics
The first transition path occurred in the three Baltic states. The dominant dynamic was confrontation between old elites and new societal challengers, not compromise. Additionally, the masses were involved, not sidelined as they usually were in the old regime. When the balance of power became clear, in large measure through elections in the spring of 1990, these societal actors then imposed their will on the weaker elites from the ancien regime, be they soft-liners or hard-liners. Their will was democracy—that is, their ideological commitment to liberal principles pushed regime change towards democratic consolidation. Democrats, not the process of transition, produced new democratic regimes. The process of regime transformation was revolutionary, not evolutionary.

In the Baltic republics, anti-Soviet groups sprouted during political liberalization, but elections in 1989 and 1990 were crucial in mobilizing anti-communist movements and clarifying the distribution of power between the ancien regime and challengers. Gorbachev’s individual initiative allowed elections to occur; he was not pressured by mass actors or by splits within the ruling elite. In all three Baltic republics these elections, particularly the 1990 elections for Supreme Soviets clarified the distribution of power as firmly in favor of the challengers, be it the anti-communist Sajudis in Lithuania, the Latvian Popular Front and Latvian National Independence Movement in Latvia, or the Estonian Popular Front in Estonia. These elections did not facilitate negotiations with the ancien regime about power sharing or democratization. Instead, all three republics unilaterally declared their independence and then entered into a prolonged stalemate with Moscow, which ended after the failed coup attempt by hard-liners in Moscow in August 1991.

After this attempt, the three republics became truly independent. In all of these cases, societal actors committed to democratic ideas took advantage of their overwhelming power to impose new democratic regimes. Some leaders in these new regimes, especially those of Latvia and Estonia, also dictated new anti-liberal rules that restricted franchise along ethnic lines. But in the case of the three Baltic states, the prospect of membership in Western institutions—first NATO and then the European Union—played a very positive role in helping to check anti-democratic policies and tendencies, consolidating democracy. However, the pull of the West did not play the same role in the rest of the former Soviet Union.
Autocracy: Central Asia and Belarus
The second transition path was most common in Central Asia. If, at the time of transition, autocrats ensconced in the state enjoyed hegemonic power over challenging societal actors, then authoritarian rule resulted, as it did in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Before the failed coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 neither state nor societal leaders in these Soviet republics had openly sought independence. Nor were elections in 1989 and 1990 important liberalizing events in these republics. By 1991, grass-roots organizations—including some pro-democracy groups—had sprouted in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and to a lesser extent in Turkmenistan. In the fall of 1991, however, the distribution of power in these three regimes still clearly favored those already in the state. They are still in power today. Civil society in all of these places was weak in 1991 and remains weak today.

Belarus initially followed a similar path of autocratic imposition from above. Hard-liners dominated the ancien regime and the opposition, the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), was weak. In the 1990 elections, the Communist party of Belarus (CPB) captured 86 percent of the seats in the Supreme Soviet while candidates affiliated with the BPF only won seven percent. The following year, in March 1991, 83 percent of Belarusians voted in favor of preserving the USSR. In April 1991, strikes against the state demonstrated that society was capable of mass mobilization. A few months later, the failed August 1991 coup undermined the legitimacy of the hard-liners in power who had enthusiastically supported the coup leaders. Stanislav Shushkevich, a moderate, benefited from the exogenous shock of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev.

In contrast to more successful transitions to democracy, however, Belarus’ first post-communist leader was not a leader of the democratic opposition, but a reformer from within the system with almost no mass following. A divided elite allowed Belarus’ first post-communist vote for the presidency in June-July 1994 to be competitive, an opening cited in the third wave democratization literature as positive for democratic emergence. Instead of creating an opportunity for a democrat to emerge from society the split in Belarus allowed an even more autocratic leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to come forward and win the election. When a political opening was created, there were no democrats in Belarus to fill it. No democrats meant no democracy. The old hard-liners from the ancien regime, while initially wary of Lukashenka, quickly moved to work with the new leader in consolidating authoritarian rule in Belarus.
A Political Grab Bag
Rather than liberal democracy, stalemated transitions—the third transition path in the post-communist world—have produced a range of different outcomes such as electoral democracy, unconsolidated democracies creeping towards dictatorship, and civil war. Transitions in which the balance of power between the ancien regime and its challengers was relatively equal have also been the most protracted and least conclusive in the region. This result is the opposite of that predicted by earlier writers on third wave democratization. Instead of stable, liberal democracies, this transition path produced unconsolidated regimes, wavering between dictatorship and democracy, during the first decade after Soviet collapse.

In response to Gorbachev’s reforms, anti-communist political groups in Russia formed and eventually coalesced into a united front—Democratic Russia. Elections in 1989 and 1990 and strikes in 1989 and 1991 helped to mobilize mass demonstrations against the ancien regime. Societal power appeared to be relatively equal to state power. New opportunities for non-traditional political action also attracted defectors and reformists from within the old ruling elite including, most importantly, Boris Yeltsin. While nationalist and democratic themes punctuated the ideology of opposition of Democratic Russia and its allies, militant nationalists never dominated the anti-communist movement. Within the Soviet state, soft-liners such as Alexander Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze, and, at the time, Gorbachev offered cooperative interlocutors for Russia’s democratic challengers. Throughout the fall of 1990 and spring of 1991, stalemate appeared to force both sides towards compromise.

Yet, though sporadically attempted, a pacted transition did not result. In the summer of 1991, Democratic Russia and the regime came very close to signing the 9+1 Accord, which would have delineated jurisdictional boundaries between the central state and the republics. Before this agreement could be signed, however, hard-liners from within the Soviet state opted to interrupt the negotiated path and instead tried to impose their preferences for regime change (or a lack thereof) through the use of force. Their coup attempt in August 1991 failed, an event that allowed Yeltsin and his allies to ignore past agreements and impose new political rules—including, first and foremost, Soviet dissolution. Yeltsin’s advantage in the wake of the August 1991 coup attempt, however, was only temporary. Less than two years later, opponents to his reform ideas coalesced to challenge his regime. This new stalemate—which crystallized at the barricades again in September 1993—also ended in violent confrontation. Only after Yeltsin prevailed again in this standoff did he dictate a new set of political rules that the population ratified in a referendum. Eventually, the opposition also acquiesced to these new rules, though the scars of this protracted and violent transition still remain. The regime that subsequently emerged under Yeltsin was a fragile electoral democracy, unconsolidated and confronted by real challengers to democratic practices both within and outside of the state.

Although without the violence, the same kind of quasi-democratic, quasi-autocratic regime emerged in Ukraine in the 1990s. Ukraine managed a peaceful handover of power from one president to another in 1994, a remarkable achievement for the region. Yet, the new president, President Leonid Kuchma, gradually tried to weaken democratic checks on his executive power and construct a system of “managed democracy,” formal democratic practices, but informal control of all political institutions. Yet, because Kuchma never enjoyed the overwhelming public support, the Ukrainian president was constrained when trying to limit political autonomy and opposition. In addition, Kuchma’s inept and blunt attempts to squelch opposition voices—be it his alleged collusion in ordering the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, his jailing of former energy minister Yulia Tymoshenko, or his dismissal of the successful and popular Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko—served to mobilize even greater opposition. This societal response to autocratic government is what most distinguishes Ukraine from its Slavic neighbors. The “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign from December 2000 to March 2001 and the results of the March 2002 parliamentary elections demonstrated that Ukrainian civil society was active and politically sophisticated. Yet, Ukraine’s regime at the end of the first decade still looked more like the Russian system and less like the consolidated democracies in East Central Europe or the Baltic states.
Exceptions to Classification
Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan do not fit neatly into the three categories of transition. The first elections in Georgia and Armenia, and to a lesser extent in Azerbaijan, produced majorities against communism, a condition that helped to produce democracy in the Baltic states. But ill-defined borders created opportunities for non-democratic forces to arise in all three countries. These territorial fights played a direct role in undermining democratic consolidation for the remainder of the decade in the three countries. Tajikistan had a relatively equal distribution of power between competing elites at the time of transition but this balance of power produced civil war, not a pacted transition to democracy. Eventually, a settlement was brokered but the result was a new autocracy, not democracy.
Second Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship
In 2001, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, three clear regime types had emerged—democracies (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), autocracies (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan), and semi-autocratic, semi-democratic regimes in the reminder of the post-Soviet countries. Those regimes falling in the third category were hard to classify. Yet these regimes, stuck somewhere in the twilight zone between democracy and dictatorship, seemed stable. At the end of the decade, few predicted fundamental regime change in these places or anywhere else in the region.

For the consolidated democracies and autocracies, stability has continued for the first five years of their second decade of rule since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The pull of the European Union has helped to guide democratic consolidation in the Baltic states. Likewise, autocracy still seems stable in most of Central Asia. In response to a popular protest in Andijon, Uzbekistan in the spring of 2005, President Islam Karimov ordered the use of lethal force against innocent demonstrators, raising questions about the long-term stability of his dictatorship. To date, however, signs of genuine regime collapse in Uzbekistan are few.
Democratic Revolutions
Several of the “twilight zone” regimes, however, have witnessed rapid and unexpected motion in the last five years. Three of the semi-autocratic regimes crumbled—Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. To varying degrees the new regimes that emerged after the collapse of semi-autocracy in each of the countries have been more democratic than the previous regimes. At the same time, Russia has moved in the opposite direction, towards greater autocracy. Russia’s move toward greater authoritarianism has helped to shore up embattled autocracies in Belarus and Uzbekistan, and indirectly, in large measure by example, helped to inspire a similar drift towards autocracy in Azerbaijan. These shifts are puzzling. What caused this second wave of regime change towards both democracy and autocracy?

The democratic breakthroughs in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan shared several features. First, in all three cases, the spark for regime change was a fraudulent national election, not a war, an economic crisis, a coup, or the death of a dictator. The trigger was an event scheduled and organized by those in power, not those challenging power. Second, in all three cases, the challengers to the incumbents in power deployed extra-constitutional means to insure that the formal rules of the political game embodied in the constitution were followed. In each of these cases, the challengers to the existing regime were not seeking new rules or a different kind of regime. Instead, they were defending the political rights of citizens and the democratic practices already codified in existing constitutions. Negotiation was only one of several means used to achieve this end in one case, Ukraine. In the two other cases, roundtables or negotiations between the ancien regime and its challengers did not play a central role. Third, for different time periods, all three cases experienced some period of “dual sovereignty,” in which both incumbents and challengers claimed to be the sovereign authority of the same territory. Fourth, all of these revolutionary situations ended without the massive use of violence by either the state or the opposition. To varying degrees, the opposition groups in all of these countries used extra-constitutional tactics, but did not resort to violence. Those who eventually fell from power did entertain using coercive methods to stay in power, but all of these incumbent leaders, when push came to shove, refrained from calling on troops to repress popular protests.

When observed comparatively, several conditions seemed necessary for a successful democratic breakthrough, including (1) a semi-autocratic regime, (2) an unpopular leader of the ancien regime, (3) a strong and well-organized opposition, (4) an ability to create the perception quickly that the elections results were falsified, (5) enough independent media to inform citizens about the falsified vote, (6) a political opposition capable of mobilizing tens of thousands of demonstrators to protest electoral fraud, and (7) divisions among the intelligence forces, military, and police. To varying degrees, all three cases of democratic transition drew upon this long list of conditions necessary for breakthrough.
Russian Retraction?
By contrast, since becoming president in the spring of 2000, Putin has made sure that his regime has avoided the development of any of these factors. Instead, in the name of trying to make the Russian state stronger, Putin has systematically weakened all institutions and organizations that might constrain the power of the Kremlin. Putin did not inherit a consolidated democracy when he became president in 2000 and he has not radically violated the 1993 constitution, cancelled elections, or arrested hundreds of political opponents. Russia today remains freer and more democratic than the Soviet Union.

However, if the formal institutions of Russian democracy remain in place, the actual democratic content of these institutions has eroded considerably on Putin’s watch. Putin has effectively seized control of all national television networks and has begun to reign in several prominent print outlets such as Izvestiya and Moscow News. He has tamed regional barons who once served as a powerful balance to Yeltsin’s presidential rule, first by emasculating the Federation Council on which they served and then by canceling direct elections for all governors. His regime has arbitrarily used the law to jail or chase away political foes, remove candidates from electoral ballots, weaken Russia’s independent political parties, and harass NGO leaders by recently passing very restrictive laws regulating their activities. At the same time, Putin has increased the role of the Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB) and has arbitrarily wielded state institutions such as courts, tax inspectors, and police forces for political ends. Today, power is more concentrated in the office of the president than at anytime in Russia’s post-Soviet history, while the Russian polity has considerably less pluralism in 2006 than it did in 2000. In 2004, Russia became the only country in the region to be downgraded from partly free to not free by Freedom House since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After a decade of revolution and anarchy, Russians yearned for more stability. Putin met that demand, however, in a particularly autocratic way, which was not determined by Russia’s history or culture. He was empowered to pursue his autocratic proclivities due to a key resource at his disposal, which his quasi-autocratic counterparts in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan did not have—oil. The spike in oil prices over the last several years has endowed Putin with the financial power to build a more autocratic regime. To a lesser extent, the same is true for Ilam Aliev in Azerbaijan. By providing cheap gas, Putin has also subsidized autocratic consolidation in Belarus. It is no accident that each of the countries that underwent recent democratic revolutions in the region lacked this valuable commodity.

Compared to the initial wave of regime change in the region, the number of dictatorships and democracies has grown dramatically in the last five years, while the pool of unconsolidated, semi-democratic, semi-autocratic regimes has dwindled to only two—Moldova and Armenia. Again, the region looks stable, polarized between these two extreme forms of government. And yet, the one lesson that the tumultuous last 15 years should teach us is that our ability to predict change in the region is no better than it was on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse.