Ten Years after the Soviet Collapse:
Persistence of the Past and Prospects for the Future

Freedom House, 15 August 2001

Alexander J. Motyl
Alexander J. Motyl is an associate professor of political science and the deputy director of the Center for Global Change and Governance at Rutgers University-Newark. He also is a senior advisor and a coeditor of Nations in Transit.)

For most of the 1990s, the post-Communist states fell into three geographically clustered groupings of distinct regime types: market-oriented democracies in east-central Europe, despotisms, for the most part, in Central Asia, and parasitic authoritarian states in between. Although the fact that these clusters remained intact for a decade suggests that the countries composing them possess stable political systems, the reality is somewhat more complex. The most and least advanced clusters—the democracies and the despotisms— indeed have consolidated, but a fracturing of the middle-of-the-road authoritarian states appears to be underway. The threefold division of post-Communist states, thus, may be evolving into two camps: the most democratic and market-oriented countries versus the least democratic and least market-oriented ones. Is this division inevitable? No. Decelerating, even deflecting, this trend is possible—and the West therefore can make a difference— but only over time as the result of a patient and steadfast commitment to targeted change.


The three clusters that emerged and persisted throughout most of the 1990s consist of the following countries (excluding Bosnia and Herzegovina on the grounds that it is largely an international protectorate):

MOST ADVANCED: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia

MIDDLE: Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

LEAST ADVANCED: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yugoslavia

The most advanced category consists of countries that, by virtually any measure, most closely resemble functioning democracies, market economies, rule of law states, and civil societies. The least advanced category of despotic states comprises the least approximate democracies, market economies, rule of law states, and civil societies. The middle category of parasitic authoritarian states possesses some of these institutions to some degree.

On the rationale that sums convey the institutional interconnectedness of countries’ reform efforts, we can assign numerical values to these distinctions by adding each country’s Nations in Transit ratings for political process; civil society; independent media; governance and public administration; constitutional, legislative, and judicial framework; privatization; macroeconomics; and microeconomics. (Since the Nations in Transit ratings for 1997 and 1998 did not include corruption, this category is excluded from the calculations.) Table 1 shows that the most advanced countries are located in the 10 to 25 range, the least advanced in the 40 to 55 range, and the middle-of-the-roaders in the 25 to 40 range.

Note: All figures were rounded out to the nearest whole number. Since the 1997 ratings had only one number for the economy, this number was multiplied by 2 to make that year’s ratings consistent with those for 1998 and 2000.

As these numbers illustrate, the clusters are not random, but geographically bounded, aggregations. The most advanced grouping lies in a broad swath running diagonally from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea. The middle category—with Kyrgyzstan as the outlier—occupies the huge geographic landmass extending from Russia’s easternmost tip to the Balkans.

The least advanced category is, with the exception of Belarus and Yugoslavia, confined to Central Asia and the littoral states of the Caspian Sea. Moreover, as the means indicate, these clusters have been stable since the period 1989–1991. Although there may now be gradual movement toward the poles—and, thus, a “shaking out” of the middle category— the central feature of the last decade was the relative impermeability of the boundaries between and among these three sets of countries.


The emergence and persistence of three geographically and systemically coherent aggregations of countries suggests that this division cannot be due, except in a purely superficial sense, to wise policy choices. After all, why would policy wisdom be greatest in East-central Europe and progressively less the farther one moves toward the east? If Eurocentrism strikes as an inadequate approach to the problem, the more appropriate question must be, Why were some elites unwilling or unable to adopt genuinely reformist policies? But to put the question in this manner is to say that not policy choice, per se, but either the nature of the elites or the constraints impinging on their choices best account for the clustering. If the elites are the culprit, then we have to account for their retrograde nature. Such an inquiry inevitably brings us to the conditions that led to their formation in Communist times. If the constraints are at fault, then they too can be understood only in terms of the legacies of Communist rule. Either way—and the answer naturally involves both explanations—the institutional legacies of communism best account for the tripartite division of the post-Communist states.

These legacies may be usefully conceptualized in terms of totalitarian control and Soviet imperial rule. The degree to which a Communist state dominated the political, economic, cultural, and social life in a country determined the extent to which nontotalitarian institutions such as those instantiated in democracy, the market, rule of law, and civil society could exist. In turn, the degree to which countries could act independently of Moscow’s dictates determined the kind of states, governments, and elites—formless and unskilled, or more or less capable of decisive action—countries possessed upon achieving independence.

As a result, those countries that were least totalitarian and least imperial by and large joined the first category of advanced polities. With elements of democracy, the market, rule of law, and civil society already in place in the period 1989–1991, they were best positioned to push weakly totalitarian and imperial institutions along existing developmental trajectories toward further democratization and marketization. Hungary and Poland, which evolved from goulash communism to market socialism to the free market, therefore epitomize east-central European development. Seen in this light, the “Big Bang” introduced by Prime Minister Leszek Balcerowicz in 1990 was, in reality, the logical next step along Poland’s decades-long movement away from communism.

Those countries that were most totalitarian and most imperial joined the third category, and those that were moderately totalitarian and imperial belonged to the second.

Like the second-category countries, the polities in the third had almost no democratic, market, rule of law, and civil society institutions in place upon independence. But, unlike the second-category countries, those in the third also had unusually underdeveloped states, governments, and elites. Both sets of countries therefore faced the immense, and perhaps impossible, task of constructing democracy, the market, rule of law, and civil society simultaneously under conditions of economic collapse and widespread popular immiseration.

The third-category polities even lacked the skilled elites to contemplate such a heady task.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the least advanced countries generally developed highly personalized dictatorships—Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, Sapurmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, Heidar Aliev of Azerbaijan, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan come immediately to mind—resting on administrative control of much, if not all, of the economy. The middle countries adopted the veneer of formal democracy and the market, on the one hand, and bureaucratic authoritarian regimes with official and unofficial elites engaged in untrammeled rent seeking and theft, on the other.

Just as the degree of totalitarian control and imperial rule helps explain post-Communist trajectories, so, too, does it provide a convincing account of developments under communism.

In terms of nearness to democracy, civil society, rule of law, and a market economy, which countries were the most advanced in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s? Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Which were the least advanced? The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republics, in which republican institutions were least autonomous and ruling elites were most likely to consist of Russians “parachuted” from Moscow. All the others enjoyed either moderate to high degrees of both totalitarian and imperial rule or, as in the case of Romania, high levels of totalitarianism as well as substantial independence. The fit, naturally, is not perfect. Yugoslavia should have been among the most advanced countries, but it is close enough to suggest that Communist institutions made an enormous causal difference to the trajectories all states followed before and after 1989–1991.

If the mix of totalitarian and imperial institutions accounted for the emergence of these three clusters, it is hardly surprising that it should have contributed to their persistence after the period 1989–1991. It is, after all, in the nature of institutions, as popularly accepted ways of doing things, to resist easy change, to persist, and thus to generate conditions of “path dependence.” The most and least advanced states were, at the end of the 1990s, stable. That is to say, they were internally coherent systems capable of reproducing themselves and the conditions of their rule. The market-oriented democracies of East-central Europe enjoyed relatively high popular legitimacy and, no less important, were capable of delivering the goods. The despotisms of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Belarus ruled by means of patronage, popular demobilization, and repression. Only the parasitic authoritarian states of the largely Slavic middle rested on contradictory regime features that produced systemic instability.


As already noted, this tripartite division may be coming to an end. Some middle-of-the-road countries—Croatia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania—are close to joining the most advanced category, while others—Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—are on the verge of entering the least advanced category. Croatia and Slovakia were able to get back on track fairly quickly and easily once Franjo Tudjman and Vladimir Meciar, respectively, left the scene.

Bulgaria and Romania have, despite a number of serious crises, been able to proceed steadily in the right direction. Significantly, although still mired within the least advanced category, Yugoslavia may be poised to leapfrog the Milosevic interregnum and return to the path of democratic and market-oriented reform. In marked contrast to these countries, though, Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan are moving toward more personalized forms of authoritarian rule by Vladimir Putin, Leonid Kuchma, and Askar Akaev, respectively.

Two reasons account for this emerging bipolarity. First, Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia experienced substantially lower degrees of totalitarian and imperial rule than Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. We therefore expect the east-central European states (including, with time, Macedonia and Albania) to resolve the institutional contradictions of second-category countries in favor of democracy and the market, to return to their institutionally “natural” trajectories, and thus to rejoin the first category. States with longer totalitarian-imperial roots such as Russia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan just as “naturally” tend toward despotism. Burdened with their institutional legacies, they cannot resolve as easily the contradiction between democratization and marketization, on the one hand, and bureaucratic authoritarianism and elite parasitism, on the other, in favor of the former. Other things being equal, Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova should at some point join them in their downward slide. The February 2001 parliamentary elections in Moldova, in which the Communists triumphed, may be a harbinger of things to come.

Ironically, it is in these second-category countries with especially complex institutional legacies that policy makers came to play what appeared to be unusually decisive roles. Although many were genuinely forceful personalities, their policy activism is best understood in terms of the institutionally contradictory setting in which they operated. By balancing one another, these institutions expanded the political space available to leaders and thus enabled them to exert exceptional influence on the policy process. Leaders such as Tudjman, Meciar, and Milosevic deflected their countries from institutionally defined upward trajectories.

Others like Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk, Kuchma, and Akaev, decelerated their countries’ downward drift. Significantly, since such personalist interventions represented deviations from, and not culminations of, past processes of evolutionary change, their impact as “intervening variables” perforce was temporary—a claim with especially worrisome implications for Georgia once Eduard Shevardnadze is no longer in power.

The second reason for the emerging bipolarity is external in origin. The European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), with respect to prospects for membership, have given preference to the most advanced countries and, thereby, have effectively relegated the second and third clusters to a single category: the outsiders or, less generously, the losers. Such a division matters for two reasons. First, non-membership in EU and NATO structures is tantamount to exclusion from a political-economic space that is undergoing rapid—even if somewhat indeterminate—institutional change. Second, non-membership means that the outsider countries will have no alternative to interacting more intensely with one another and, thus, to reinforcing their already dysfunctional institutions. It is hard to imagine just how increased economic, political, social, and cultural cooperation—or, for that matter, competition—among Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the other retrograde polities could possibly enhance their democratic and market profiles.


Although an institutional perspective leads us to expect the systemic polarization described above, it is important to appreciate that nondemocratic systems, whether parasitic authoritarian or despotic, can change for the better and move toward a greater opening of the polity and/or economy. Institutions and institutional dynamics set certain parameters for change as well as incline systems in certain directions. They decidedly do not predetermine the exact trajectory that any country or set of countries will follow.

Authoritarian states can undergo greater or lesser degrees of change for any of five reasons. First, and most obviously, crises can strike. Crises may be external interventions such as those created by the world economy (consider the impact on President Suharto of Indonesia’s financial collapse); internal convulsions such as natural catastrophes (recall how the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1972 helped delegitimize Anastasio Somoza’s rule); humanly devised disturbances such as riots, strikes, etc.; or scandals such as “Kuchmagate,” which involves allegations that Ukraine’s president was directly involved in masterminding the disappearance of an important journalist in the summer of 2000. If the timing, force, and conditions are right, crises actually may force nondemocratic and nonmarket elites to act against their own best interests and pursue reform. Crises also can weaken leaders and enable oppositions to mobilize. Whatever the outcome, positive systemic change may become more likely.

Second, although authoritarian systems can, if they are sufficiently stable, survive for quite long periods, they usually become increasingly ineffective and inefficient. Disaffected elements within the elites and/or the population may then engage in rebellion or other forms of violent activity that destabilize governments or push them in even more repressive directions. Africa provides all too many examples of such behavior. Although revolutionary movements generally fail to attain their goals, the collapse of communism between 1989 and 1991 showed that popular movements can succeed in both overthrowing delegitimized elites by peaceful means and ushering in positive reform. But this exception may have occurred because the popular upheavals took place in the unique circumstances of decayed Communist regimes—as the culminations, in many cases, of long-term institutional development away from communism and toward democracy, civil society, and the market. Whether merely despotic regimes that are incapable of maintaining law and order and inclined to resist institutional transformations in the direction of democracy and the market can collapse in similarly nonviolent circumstances seems unlikely.

Third, if parasitic authoritarian systems manage to improve the living standards for key sectors of the population while refraining from opening their political systems, they may become prone to pressure from below by a middle class emboldened to engage in opposition politics. Known as the modernization thesis, this view holds that political structures, at least in the medium to long run, must be compatible with economic structures for systems to remain stable. Taiwan, South Korea, and Indonesia provide some evidence for the persuasiveness of this view. Ironically, this argument leads us, counter-intuitively, to expect post-Communist regimes to become much more vulnerable to instability when life gets better; that is, when the autonomous, resource-endowed organizations characteristic of civil society and a middle class will have emerged and, precisely because of their autonomy and resource endowments, will be in the position to engage in effective opposition.

Fourth, authoritarian systems, not unlike the former Communist states, are most susceptible to change during and immediately after intraelite power struggles, when policy initiatives serve to promote individual factions or clans in the clash for office, wealth, and influence. Soviet and Chinese politics provided ample evidence of the validity of this argument.

In the aftermaths of the deaths of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mao Zedong, power struggles between reformist and anti-reformist factions broke out and, despite the vicious opposition of the latter, usually resulted in significant reform. Even Brezhnev, who rolled back some of Nikita Khrushchev’s changes, did accept others. Mikhail Gorbachev went so far beyond the stagnation ostensibly represented by Brezhnevism that he sparked the USSR’s collapse.

Fifth, genuinely charismatic leaders may exploit the power and resources associated with their office to attempt political and economic breakthroughs either toward greater political and economic opening or toward less. If they succeed in changing things for the better, then well and good. But even if they fail, their attempts can so rattle an authoritarian system as to permit popular mobilization, middle class opposition, or elite initiatives to nudge the system in democratic and market-oriented directions. Here, too, Gorbachev is the emblematic example of a visionary leader who let things get out of control. It is not inconceivable that a even a less-than-charismatic leader like Putin could wreak similar havoc by pressing on with his attempts to transform Russia’s malfunctioning political system into a well-ordered state. History is rife with the resistance of regional barons to the centralizing efforts of kings and the resulting instability.

It is impossible to say with any certainty which, if any, of these scenarios will affect which countries. Although crises are inherently unpredictable events, we expect them to strike more often and with greater force the longer dysfunctional systems survive. In the long run, therefore, all post-Communist despotisms and parasitic authoritarian states will become increasingly vulnerable to externally and internally generated shocks. The capacity of civil society in general or a middle class in particular to exert pressure is likely to be significant only in the long run as well. At present, both are weak and/or minuscule in all post-Communist states, and there is no reason to expect a sudden expansion of either to occur anytime soon. Charismatic leaders, or, more precisely, dictators with vision, can emerge at any time—and Russia’s Putin may be just such an example—but there is no way of predicting their emergence. Only intra-elite struggles are easily predictable: they are a permanent feature of parasitic authoritarian states even when succession struggles are not under-way.

As such, they should intensify at precisely those times when leaderships are in flux.

Inasmuch as all these states retain the veneer of formal democracy, such struggles are likely to coincide with parliamentary and, especially, presidential elections (however unfree or unfair they may be).

Although the tendency toward greater concentrations of executive power may be built into the very institutional structure of parasitic authoritarian regimes, their transformation into despotisms is inevitable only under the ceteris paribus condition. That is, only if other things remain equal, only if nothing else intervenes, will their trajectories move inexorably in a despotic direction. But, as noted above, there are at least five good reasons to expect other things not to remain the same in the short, medium, and especially long terms.


The above analysis has several implications for Western policy toward the post-Communist states. First, although the EU has no intention of expanding to most of the second- and third-category states in the foreseeable future—indeed, only a few of these states are even on the list of potential candidates approved at the EU summit in Helsinki in December 1999—it is important that the door not be closed completely. Notwithstanding the obstacles represented by the EU’s notoriously bureaucratic rigidities, the decisions adopted at the December 2000 EU summit in Nice point to a way of addressing this problem. Since groups of EU members will effectively be able to pursue varying degrees of institutional cooperation, over time the EU may develop into an institution consisting of concentric circles of cooperating countries. Once concentric circles are possible within the institution, then it becomes easier to envision further concentric circles extending beyond the institution, thus blurring the rigid line between insiders and outsiders. Naturally, NATO should be equally attentive to this issue. Whether the EU and NATO are capable of the required flexibility is, alas, uncertain. Rather more certain is that if the EU and NATO fail to develop a creative approach to the countries formally excluded from their structures, these states very possibly will stagnate behind the Schengen curtain, become objectively incapable of catching up with the West, and thus be excluded permanently from Europe.

Second, insofar as the first category of countries have “made it” and the third may be hopelessly despotic, policy should concentrate on countries in the middle such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Romania that also happen to be of greatest geopolitical importance to the West. Moreover, since these middle-of-the-road countries are experiencing some internally generated change toward the two poles, they may be most susceptible to outside influence. Nudging Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia in the direction they may be going anyway would appear to be a relatively simple and low-cost way, to quote Karl Marx, of “accelerating the birth pangs of history.” As for the second-category countries that are moving in the wrong direction, the West can decelerate, or perhaps even halt, their descent by focusing its policy efforts on the third and fourth scenarios. After all, it makes little practical or moral sense to attempt to provoke crises, exacerbate inefficiencies, or search for charismatic leaders. Such a strategy means, above all, promoting the development of a stable and strong civil society and middle class. It also means supporting those factions in the elite that, however ambivalent their relationship to democracy and the market, may be expected—or induced—to use civil society and the middle class as cudgels in their power struggles with opponents. In a word, the West must be ready for the long haul and for political engagement with less than fully democratic and market-oriented elites. Developing a vigorous middle class and civil society takes time, even in the best of circumstances. Patience and compromise and a willingness to engage in ethically gray zones of activity thus will be unavoidable for many years to come. But that is only to say that Western policy makers should practice what they do best—politics and diplomacy— and refrain from what they do worst—moralism and utopianism.