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Democracy in the former Soviet Union: 1991-2004

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Yevgeny Bendersky
Publication Date 3 January 2005
Cite as EurasiaNet, Democracy in the former Soviet Union: 1991-2004, 3 January 2005, available at: [accessed 20 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Yevgeny Bendersky 1/03/05

A EurasiaNet Partner Post from PINR

Over the last decade and a half, an unprecedented initiative has taken place in the Former Soviet Union (F.S.U.). In all 15 republics that made up the U.S.S.R., the introduction of Western-style liberal democracy and its principles became the dominant political modus operandi since 1991. Today, it is useful to assess the initial results of this important development, and draw conclusions in order to gauge the significance of such a profound change. The overall outcome of democracy's introduction has been very mixed, and although a few success stories exist, the rest of the process has quickly fallen prey to old habits that refuse to part with the past.

Democracy as a Political Tool

The introduction of democracy to the F.S.U. itself has taken place in an unprecedented environment of unipolarity, with the dominant Western democratic United States as the most powerful state in the world – politically, economically and militarily. Never before in known history has there been a single state that could wield such an incredible amount of power, nor has there ever been a state that was so secure geopolitically in its preeminent place among the world's nations. Even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had a limited dampening effect on the United States, as its economy and society rebounded within a year after the strikes.

U.S. actions since 1991 can be characterized as the logical course of action in a unipolar world, moving from a mix of unilateral and multilateral approaches towards a more unilateral stance on issues that involved the safety and security of the country. While the United States could consider itself safer in a new unipolar world than ever before, it still required the absence of potentially threatening political/military entities. Ensuring that states shared Western norms and values became one of the main U.S. policies in the post-1991 world. The spread of democracy in the newly independent states of the F.S.U. was a key way to counter any potential neo-Soviet entity from emerging and challenging America. The key belief underlying the policy that promotes democracy is the notion that liberal democratic states do not threaten each other the way pairs of non-liberal states do. Historically, since the early 19th century, democratic states enjoyed pacific, fruitful and secure relations.

This has certainly been the case among the United States and its European and Asian allies during the Cold War. The demise of the Soviet Union presented Washington with an unprecedented opportunity – to introduce the concept of democracy and a market economy to its former enemy. Such a policy worked once before, when the United States fostered and built Western liberal democracies in defeated Germany and Japan after WWII. At present these nations are U.S. allies and trade partners, though they can still disagree on certain political and economic issues.

In 1991, U.S. policymakers considered an option that if all 15 states of the F.S.U. were to become democratic, then the only possible threat they could present to the United States would be in economic terms, and not military/ideological ones. If democracy were to take root in these countries, then the U.S. position around the world would be further solidified as the leader of the market-oriented, pacific liberal democracy.

In hindsight, such a concept made political and economic sense. Soviet people, starved for political freedom, eagerly embraced democratic values in the first years after the fall of the U.S.S.R. The majority of the population had vague concepts of how democracy should really work, but there was hope that once the democratic "floodgates" would open, the ensuing flow of political freedoms would usher in a new order of the day.

What did not happen from the start, and what is only now slowly becoming apparent, is that civil society in the F.S.U. lacked proper education on even basic democratic principles. Newly found political freedom roughly translated into free elections for the majority of the people, but they knew next to nothing about other principles that are so crucial to a vibrant, working democracy. The importance of properly prepared civil society was demonstrated repeatedly in U.S. and U.N. efforts at establishing the rule of law in post-conflict societies around the world after 1991. In countries as diverse as East Timor and Bosnia, properly prepared civil society was the keystone that determined the success or failure of a given international mission. Its importance was crucial to the F.S.U. as well, but there, democracy became a process that was largely instituted from the top down, with the masses sidelined in crucial decision-making or policy-setting agendas.

Almost all of the former Soviet states had a long and rich history of autocratic executive rule. The notion of parliamentary-style democracy, with checks and balances on the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, was a totally foreign and unfamiliar concept. While many Soviet people for decades secretly wished for their authoritarian communist government to either fall or change, most had no idea what would be able to effectively replace it. The ephemeral concept of free elections, proportionate representation and a leadership responsible to the people was just that – a desired notion with no real grounding in the immediate post-Soviet reality.

Soviet people were used to the mass showcasing of their collective desires, as millions would take to the streets in government-organized demonstrations during Soviet rule. Many tapped into that "training" during the democratic protests in 1991 and 1993, when reactionary political challenges threatened the slowly emerging democratic societies. Yet, one of the key concepts of Western democracy was not properly introduced – that of the elected leadership's responsibility to its electorate. Used to trusting and relying on non-elected Communist officials for decades, millions of former Soviet people carried this "trust" with them into the new and unknown post-1991 era. Thus, the F.S.U.-style mix of new "democracies" that emerged on the international arena are as different from each other as they are from the Western world.

Present Political Picture

Three of the most Western-leaning states in the F.S.U. were the fastest to shed their Soviet "skin" to launch the process of democratic reorganization. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania spent the least amount of time in the U.S.S.R., as the three states were absorbed by Moscow only in 1940. While five decades of Soviet rule had a tremendous effect, these Baltic states were part and parcel of Northern Europe, itself a democratic area for a long time.

Even during Soviet rule, these three states stood apart from the rest of the republics socially, economically and historically. And while numerous post-Soviet problems still remain to be solved, these states have been more successful at becoming Westernized. Their refusal to associate with the past is exemplified by their desire not to be part of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose political affiliation of the former Soviet republics with Russia at its center.

Consequently, countries with culturally engrained importance of authority had the most difficult time making the transition to fully functioning Western-style democracy. Central Asian republics exemplify this trend – only one out of the five states has elected a new head of state after 1991. Three of them – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are headed by the men who were in charge of these republics in Soviet times. Having changed their titles from the first secretary of the Communist Party to prime minister/president was largely the extent of democracy in these states.

Tajikistan experienced a vicious civil war from 1992-1996, and Russia is effectively keeping the country together with economic and military influence. Only Kyrgyzstan has experienced a relatively fair and peaceful transition to democratic rule. The power of the executive in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is disproportionately stronger vis-à-vis real or perceived opposition. There, ruling communist parties and functionaries, in charge of the state's economy and finances, quickly reorganized themselves, assuming new titles draped in nationalistic flags. "New" political entities appeared virtually overnight. Yet, whatever civil groups and political opposition that slowly developed in the last decade of Soviet rule quickly found itself sidelined and incapacitated, existing as a showcase of a "multi-party" political system.

Historically, autocratic rulers have governed the lands of Central Asia. Tribal and clan connections still play a significant role in the political, social and economic interactions amongst the populations, but are now effectively utilized to maintain the ruling elite in power, not to successfully mobilize any significant opposition. Turkmenistan stands apart even amongst other Central Asian republics in the degree to which the executive has a dominant role in the country. Its leader has cultivated a Stalin-like cult of personality, wiping out any hint of opposition to his autocratic rule. According to Turkmenistan's leadership, the people are not yet ready for real democratic reforms, and will be potentially granted that opportunity in the yet-to-be-determined future.

While neighboring countries point to the near-extreme situation in Turkmenistan, no real opposition can successfully challenge the executive in those states either. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the executive branch has overwhelming power that maintains a nominal existence of opposition capable of mounting only limited political challenges.

Belarus is closer on the authoritarian scale to Turkmenistan than any other post-Soviet state. Its leader retains a firm hold on the political, social and economic life of the country. Just recently, Belorussians "freely" voted the government of President Alexander Lukashenka in for a third consecutive term. Much can be said about a country where the security apparatus is still called the K.G.B., as it was during the Soviet days, and where opposition is silenced through physical intimidation.

While Lukashenka himself was elected to office democratically in the first years of post-1991 political freedoms, he has since done everything possible to not allow real democratic reforms and principles to take root. While the people can hold small-scale protests against the government, they can do little else against a strong security apparatus with carte blanche from the capital. A similar situation exists in Armenia, where a democratically elected executive allows for opposition to exercise its rights, yet retains a firm hold on the country's political, economic and military decision-making. While Armenia does have a capable civil society, it is many years away from achieving its full potential that would be able to effectively mount a challenge to the wide-reaching presidential powers.

Azerbaijan and Moldova have also experienced a limited amount of democratic freedoms, but there the changes have been handed from the top down, and no capable challenge can be mounted to the executive powers. In Azerbaijan, power recently passed from Aliyev-senior, in charge of the republic in Soviet times, to his son, Aliyev-younger, in one of the few such power transfers around the world. This type of regime change can hardly be characterized as democratic, and yet Azerbaijan is considered a multi-party democracy.

Profits from oil sales strengthen Aliyev's hold on power, a situation not likely to be challenged in the near future. Azeri opposition is also kept in check, even as it tries to vocalize its discontent for the ruling elite. Moldova remains split between the secessionist, Russian-speaking, authoritarian Trans-Dniester region and the rest of the country. Democracy did not usher in a peaceful post-Soviet transition – in fact, a secessionist civil war started as soon as the country became independent from the Soviet Union and embarked on the process of Westernization. While there are attempts to finally unify the country, the process has stalled time and time again due to mistrust that both sides – especially non-Western Trans-Dniester – feel for each other.

Future Trendsetters?

The progress of democratic reforms in the last three post-Soviet states merits much closer attention, as these states are now setting the trend for the possible future course of post-Soviet democracy. In Russia, vibrant civil society exists, born in the Soviet times of political repression and reared in the last fifteen years of non-Communist rule. Numerous citizens' groups and political parties make themselves heard on a daily basis on a variety of issues. Some civil society groups have even thrown a gauntlet to the government, openly defying the military draft that sent soldiers into the prolonged and bloody Chechen conflict. Yet, currently, even such valiant efforts fall short of effecting real political change.

Democratic reforms in the Russian Federation have gone to great lengths to strengthen the executive, first as a post-1991 safety alternative against resurgent communist and nationalist trends, then as the only viable option capable of holding the country together. Once-vibrant political opposition in Russia has seen its real power diminish over the last seven years. Pro-executive political parties now enjoy overwhelming support, with Russia becoming a one-party state where President Vladimir Putin controls the media, as well as economic, military and political processes. On the surface, Russia is perhaps the only state where political processes resemble those of Western Europe or the United States. In reality, Putin's political party enjoys the preponderance of power that is unlikely to be effectively challenged in the near future.

At present, there are only two post-Soviet states where real democracy has a chance of limited success. At the end of 2003, the people of Georgia gave their government a strong vote of no confidence after a decade of corruption, crime, civil wars and declining living standards. Following mass non-violent protests, they peacefully forced the executive out of office in what came to be known as the "Rose Revolution." The new, young, Western-oriented leadership promised wide-ranging reforms aimed at reaching Georgia's full economic, political and social potential.

Georgians exported their experience to Ukraine, where a repeat of 2003 is currently taking place, with the third round of presidential elections most likely to usher in pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko as the new leader of the country. In Ukraine, people went out into the streets to protest the bitterly divisive presidential elections that were marred by massive voting irregularities in favor of the incumbent leadership aiming for closer ties to Russia. Ukrainian civil society showcased its persistence, with month-long protests taking place in Ukraine's major cities.

As in Georgia, the democratic opposition was able to mobilize itself to the extent not seen in the post-Soviet republics since the August 1991 hardliners' coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. While the third voting round will be able to bring the democratic opposition to power, it will be faced with the gargantuan task of unifying a country that was virtually split in half by somewhat diverse visions of Ukraine's future in the F.S.U. and the world. While Georgians and Ukrainians were capable of efficiently mobilizing and channeling their opposition fervor, it is unlikely that similar protests can be held in other former Soviet republics to remove the entrenched executives from positions of power.


The concept of democracy was introduced into the F.S.U. with extremely varying results. By 2004, some states became one-party autocratic systems with only a semblance of opposition. Such states have multi-party parliaments and revised constitutions, while the real power rests with former communist apparatchiks. Other states walk the thin line between a one-party state and potential multi-party democratic systems.

Still, others have been able to make the transition and to approximate Western-style democracy as much as possible. These select few states experienced revolutions "from below," when the people rose in popular revolt against corrupt governments, challenging the "top-bottom" distribution of power and political freedom. All 15 post-Soviet states are official democracies. Thus, the U.S. goal of democracy promotion in the F.S.U. can be considered successful, with major caveats to that explanation.

While the U.S. was capable of steering certain democratic processes to their rightful conclusions – such as offering support for opposition in Georgia, Ukraine and in 1991-1996 Russia – the process of democratization was left to its own, local devices in many other newly independent states. American interests of the day dictated the course of action, such as the need for Central Asian military bases after 2001 or access to oil reserves, often moving the plight of democracy to the political background. As a result, the uneven spread of democracy in the F.S.U. created a collection of pacific states vis-à-vis their policies towards the United States. Nominally or fully democratic, they are in no position to challenge Washington effectively. On the other hand, they all can be courted or considered as allies, based on American foreign policy needs.

The last decade and a half brought momentous changes to large parts of the globe. While many of these changes were positive, the U.S. has not been successful in fostering and aiding civil society capable of making educated and informed decisions in many former Soviet states. Instead, it acquiesced to "democratic" changes handed from the top by governments and executives associated with old and fallen regimes. Thus, a new brand of post-Soviet democracy was created. It is yet unclear how the future development of such democracy will unfold. However, it would be prudent of the U.S. government to take the lessons of post-Soviet political transitions into consideration as it continues to promote political processes in diverse regions of the Middle East and South Asia that are historically unprepared to bring the concept of democracy to Western-style fruition.

Posted January 3, 2005 © Eurasianet

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