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The Authoritarian Dead End:The Arab Spring’s Implications for the Former Soviet Union
by Christopher Walker

The recent popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have exposed the fragility of the region’s ostensibly stable authoritarian regimes, and brought into sharp relief these governments’ inability to deliver public goods and economic prosperity to their people.

The democratic openings in Egypt and Tunisia, and the determination of ordinary people to pursue their rights in the face of violent repression in countries like Libya and Syria, have also shaken a number of commonly held assumptions about democracy and governance in general.

One particularly persistent myth is that people in certain cultures have an inherently weak desire for greater freedoms, economic opportunity, and democratic accountability, and will acquiesce to despotic rule if their most rudimentary needs are met.

Another is that authoritarian governance is a guarantor of stability. In reality, authoritarian systems steadily erode the independent institutions and safeguards that guarantee basic justice; ensure government efficiency, integrity, and responsiveness; and provide for regular, peaceful transfers of power. These regimes come to focus on enriching themselves and suppressing complaints rather than addressing underlying problems, and their intrinsic lack of transparency on the nagging issue of presidential succession makes crises almost inevitable.

Unfortunately for the world’s established and aspiring democracies, authoritarian states have the same negative effects at the international level. They block human rights initiatives in international bodies, restrict international media and civil society groups, flout international law, and often attempt to control political and economic affairs in neighboring states. As in the domestic sphere, such regimes become brittle, grasping, unavoidable, and supposedly irreplaceable presences in their regions.

The revelations stemming from the recent upheaval in the Middle East raise serious questions about the former Soviet Union, which is home to a similar concentration of entrenched, nondemocratic leaders. According to the findings of Nations in Transit 2011, nine of the twelve non-Baltic former Soviet states were either consolidated or semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes during the calendar 2010 coverage period. Only three—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—fell into more democratic categories. Viewed another way, about 225 million people, or 80 percent of the region’s population, were living in authoritarian settings in 2010.

The authoritarian former Soviet states suffer from many of the institutional weaknesses found in the Middle East, including shoddy governance and the corrupt concentration of economic power in the hands of presidential families and their associates. They also exert a harmful influence beyond their borders. Russia, for example, has actively sought to stifle any democratic change on its periphery. This policy was on display in December 2010, when Russian authorities tacitly supported a savage government crackdown on the opposition in Belarus following fraudulent national elections.

The democracy scores recorded by Nations in Transit show that all nine countries in the authoritarian categories have grown more repressive over the past decade, and the region’s autocrats seem determined to retain their monopolies on power. While their tenures have not yet reached the extraordinary lengths of those in the Middle East and North Africa, the average time since the last rotation of power in the 12 countries of the non-Baltic former Soviet Union is now just over 12 years (see graph on page 4). If not for Moldova and Ukraine, where opposition parties took power through elections within the last two years, and Kyrgyzstan, where the authoritarian president was ousted in an April 2010 revolution, the average would be even higher. The Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still ruled by their Soviet-era leaders, while other regimes have awkwardly improvised ways to pass the baton without a true democratic contest, as with Azerbaijan’s dynastic succession or the ambiguous “tandem” of Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev.

The ever-growing tenures of authoritarians in the former Soviet Union—and the consequent deepening of associated institutional pa-thologies—has created a number of looming problems:

  • First, these consolidated authoritarian systems have no mechanism for enabling a peaceful rotation of power, even if they hold stage-managed elections in a bid to maintain their legitimacy. The unresolved question of succession hangs over the septuagenarian rulers of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, while the comparatively youthful autocrats in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan present increasingly frustrated citizens with the promise of political stagnation for many years to come.
  • Second, the governments in the former Soviet Union, like those in the Middle East, systematically deny space for moderate political voices that could offer a viable alternative to existing policies and leaders. This marginalization can set societies on a dangerous cycle of extremism among government opponents and violent crack-downs by the authorities. In some cases authoritarian leaders even tacitly encourage extremism, either to combat and discredit moderates or to make a case for their own indispensability. These phenomena are of concern across much of the former Soviet Union, but particularly so in settings where extremist voices have managed to gain greater resonance, such as in Russia and Uzbekistan.
  • Third, the inherent corruption and lawlessness of these opaque governance systems hobble economic opportunity and reform. Russia, for example, has made no meaningful headway in diversifying its economy and reducing its reliance on state-controlled oil and gas exports. Ongoing capital flight and shrinking levels of foreign direct investment are a testament to the arbitrary nature of business regulation and property rights in the country. Belarus’s ossified, Soviet-style economy is now in an especially volatile stage of its seemingly perpetual crisis, and has survived largely on outside subsidies, particularly from Moscow. Similar stories of mismanagement of public assets, degradation of infrastructure, and dependence on a handful of nationalized but ultimately external revenue sources play out across virtually all of the authoritarian states in the region. The leaders tend to treat national wealth as their own, part of the broader pattern of narrow regime interests taking precedence over the public good.
  • Finally, the corrosive effect of authoritarian governance on a country’s institutions means that the longer the wait to begin a serious reform process, the more difficult and complex the reform challenge becomes. The rising hurdles include overweening security forces with lucrative economic interests and growing political power, judiciaries with fading notions of independence and professionalism, and the steady stifling of talented individuals who might otherwise serve as competent politicians, technocrats, or entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, none of the consolidated authoritarian regimes in question have signaled a willingness or capacity to undertake the reforms that would ameliorate festering problems and enable more positive outcomes for governance and development. Instead, it seems that the prevailing strategy is to tighten the screws and hope for the best, an approach fraught with obvious shortcomings given the recent experience of the Middle East and North Africa.

While the former Soviet Union suffers from the most acute democratic deficit of the regions covered in Nations in Transit, countries to the west are confronting ongoing challenges to democracy as well. Among the new European Union (EU) member states, Hungary has triggered deep concern, as the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pursued an illiberal program since taking office in early 2010. Among other steps, it has enacted extensive changes to the media framework that pose fundamental threats to free speech. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, a total of five countries suffered declines in their democracy scores due to developments in 2010.



Reform-Resistant Authoritarian States: Despite the clear and increasingly urgent need for reform, a critical mass of regimes in the former Soviet Union are effectively resistant to change. Several of these governments have never opened themselves to political competition or other elements of a democratic system in the 20 years since independence, while others—particularly Russia—have actively rolled back partial progress made in previous years.

Deteriorating Media Environment in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the independent media category in 2010, appearing in every subregion covered in Nations in Transit. A total of seven countries—Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Ukraine—regressed on the media indicator. Hungary, though an EU member state and still one of the better performers in the survey, suffered the largest decline after its government pushed through restrictive new media legislation.

Sharp Declines in Key Countries: Ukraine, until recently viewed as the most important example of democratic reform in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, suffered unusually large declines in 2010. The scores fell in a total of four areas, including steep half-point reductions in the judicial framework and national democratic governance categories. Hungary also experienced declines in four areas, with half-point declines for national democratic governance and independent media.

Setbacks Prevailing in the Balkans: While Croatia and Serbia continued to make gradual progress in 2010 on reforms associated with EU candidacy, five other countries in the region—Albania, Bos-nia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro—suffered declines in their overall democracy scores. Such backsliding, which stemmed from a variety of stubborn obstacles to reform in these countries, is a reminder that the EU and the United States do not have the luxury of disengagement from this subregion.



The blocking of any consequential space for alternative political voices remained a common phenomenon in this region in 2010, and while a handful of smaller countries made notable progress, the majority grew worse or maintained very poor performances.

In Russia, for example, the ruling party again used its dominance of state administrative resources and a variety of rigging techniques to ensure victory in regional and local elections, despite signs that its popularity was in decline. Similar electoral manipulation is expected to determine the results of upcoming December 2011 parliamentary contest as well as the March 2012 presidential vote. In fact, the only uncertainty surrounding the latter seems to entail the choice between Medvedev and Putin, which the two men have promised to resolve themselves before the campaign even begins.

Russia’s democracy score declined due to deepening pressures on the judiciary and federal encroachments on local governance, as regional and local executives who once came to office through elections were replaced by appointed officials. The setbacks in these two areas outweighed an improvement in the civil society category. Despite the ongoing pressures and obstacles imposed by the authorities, the nongovernmental sector persisted in organizing rallies to oppose local officials in Kalinin-grad, defend the Khimki forest outside Moscow from devel-opment, and assert the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. In response to these efforts, police raided many organizations, confiscating computers and documents, and broke up a number of demonstrations with excessive force.     Meanwhile, the November 2010 par-liamentary elections in Azerbaijan intensified an established pattern of blatant manipulation, leading to another overall score decline. The outcome of the balloting strongly suggested that any alternative or dissenting voices will no longer have a serious opportunity to participate in the country’s politics. As both Russia and Azerbaijan confront complex choices concerning the investment and use of their massive energy wealth, the elimination of independent scrutiny and critical analysis of such decisions should be of particular concern to the citizens of these countries and the international community alike.

After courting the EU for a time and raising hopes of some degree of competition and pluralism, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus won a deeply fraudulent election in December 2010 and pursued a vindictive persecution of opposition candidates and their supporters. The country’s democracy score deteriorated as a result, reversing the previous year’s slight upgrade.

Kazakhstan completed its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe without making any institutional improvement in democratic accountability. In fact, additional steps were taken to insulate the president and his family from the rule of law, as the parliament moved forward with an initiative to make Nazarbayev the “leader of the nation,” which among other things would provide him with lifetime immunity from investigation or prosecution.

Ukraine’s improvement in Nations in Transit following the 2004 Orange Revolution was built on greater press freedom, competitive elections, and vibrant civil society. However, in the months after Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency in early 2010, his administration displayed hostility to progress in precisely those areas. Government pressure on television outlets led to self-censorship regarding coverage of politically sensitive topics, opposition parties encountered administrative obstacles in local elections, and civil society groups faced intimidation by the state security service. Moreover, the government pushed through legislation that reduced judicial independence, and secured the legally dubious judicial reversal of constitutional changes associated with the Orange Revolution. These developments are an indication of the vulnerability of Ukraine’s democratic institutions and the need for vigilance and engagement by the EU, the United States, and the wider democratic community to prevent a wholesale reversal of recent gains.

In a contrasting example of positive change, Moldova earned the greatest net improvement in its democracy score of all Nations in Transit countries, with upgrades on electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, and judicial framework. It also moved from the semi-authoritarian to the hybrid/transitional regime type. The advances came as a result of reforms introduced by a coalition government elected in 2009 and successful repeat elections in 2010.

Georgia received score improvements as it began to recover from the conflict and political turmoil of previous years, which among other effects had hobbled reform efforts. Local elections held in May 2010 were seen as an improvement over earlier polls, though a number of shortcomings remained. Also during the year, lawmakers adopted controversial constitutional changes that will shift significant executive authority from the president to the prime minister. The amendments are set to take effect after the second and final term of President Mikheil Saakashvili expires, prompting speculation that he may seek to become prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan experienced a net improvement in its overall democracy score, as a popular revolt in April 2010 forced the increasingly authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power, and he was replaced by an interim government that oversaw the adoption of a new constitution as well as competitive parliamentary elections. However, this progress was tarnished by deadly episodes of ethnic violence, par-ticularly against the Uzbek minority in the country’s south, and the failure of the justice system to hold the perpetrators accountable.



On the whole, the 10 new EU member states perform exceptionally well on the democracy indicators used in Nations in Transit. Elections are free and fair, news media generally operate without interference, and civil society is able to actively participate in policy discussions. At the same time, corruption is an ongoing problem, due in large part to cozy relations between political and business elites and an inability to achieve needed judicial reforms. Major business deals and bidding for state contracts in many new EU countries frequently lack transparency.

Events in Hungary in 2010 demonstrated that the positive trajectory of democratic development cannot be taken for granted, within the new EU member states in particular. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party used the two-thirds parliamentary majority it won in April 2010 elections to push through a number of measures that were viewed as clear challenges to the country’s system of democratic accountability. The array of changes enacted by the new government triggered declines in Hungary’s scores for civil society and judicial framework, and even sharper drops in the areas of independent media and national democratic governance. The media rating fell as a result of encroachments on the independence of public-service television and radio broadcasters, and the establishment a new, government-controlled regulatory body with sweeping authority over private broadcast media, print publications, and the internet. National democratic governance declined due to the Fidesz government’s assertions of political control over ostensibly independent institutions ranging from auditing agencies to the Constitutional Court. While these steps were alarming and drew widespread attention, it is noteworthy that Hungary had already suffered a series of smaller score declines over the previous five years. Among the new EU states, only Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the bloc three years after Hungary, now receive worse over-all democracy scores.

Despite Hungary’s backsliding, most of the new EU member states registered improvements in 2010. Slovakia, for example, earned an upgrade in its overall score, as a new coalition government elected in June outperformed its predecessor in the areas of national democratic governance and judicial framework. The Czech Republic benefited from unusually vibrant parliamentary elections in May that broke a long-standing deadlock between the two main parties and handed sizeable blocs of seats to new parties. The issue of corruption was high on the agenda during the campaign, and the new government pledged to make the fight against graft one of its main objectives. By year’s end, however, expectations had been disappointed, as the government fell short on policy implementation.

All three of the Baltic states perform soundly on Nations in Transit indicators, and in the recent past they have weathered challenges, sometimes significant, stemming from the global financial crisis. Lithuania experienced no score changes for 2010. Latvia earned a slight overall improvement due to well-administered parliamentary elections, but its corruption score declined as a result of a controversial reorganization process at the country’s respected Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB). Estonia saw an improvement in its overall democracy score thanks to its anticorruption efforts.

Poland’s democracy demonstrated its resilience in the face of a disastrous plane crash in which the president and dozens of senior military and civilian officials were killed. The vacant positions were quickly filled according to legal and constitutional requirements, including the presidency, for which an early election was held without incident. Poland’s performance under such extreme circumstances highlights the drastically different paths followed by the countries of the former Soviet Union, most of which have moved away from institutional integrity and accountability, and the new EU states of Central Europe, which have built impressively stable democracies despite the legacy of decades of communist rule. It seems unlikely that the recovery would be so orderly and transparent if a similar crisis were to strike one of the authoritarian states to Poland’s east.



The EU continues to exert a demonstrably positive influence on the countries of the western Balkans, all of which are considered candidates or potential candidates for membership in the bloc. They are steadily monitored and encouraged to carry out reforms that meet EU requirements, and the threat of isolation in an area that is now surrounded by member states serves as a powerful deterrent to backsliding. However, several countries faced setbacks in 2010, indicating that continued progress is neither guaranteed nor automatic. As the EU’s main powers wrestle with their own internal challenges as well as those of the most recent entrants, they should not ignore the strategic value of the European idea—not just for the Balkans, but also for the former Soviet states along the EU’s eastern border.

Both Croatia, an EU candidate country, and Serbia, an aspiring candidate, received overall score improvements for 2010, making progress in the areas of civil society and corruption. They remain tied as the best performers among the Balkans’ non-EU states. Croatia’s active civil society organizations are gaining influence among the public and in some decision-making processes. In 2010, increased civic participation associated with a labor law referendum and a number of locally based initiatives demonstrated a new willingness on the part of the public to become involved in civic organizations.

Montenegro experienced a decline due to pressure on media independence and the ongoing use of criminal libel suits. Macedonia similarly suffered a drop in its media score due to a greater number of defamation cases and larger fines against journalists. Many of these complaints were filed by politicians, judges, government officials, or competitors. In addition, an opposition media group was targeted with police raids and arrests late in the year, allegedly for financial crimes.

Kosovo’s score decline due to setbacks in three areas—electoral process, media independence, and national democratic governance—after three years of overall gains. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina marked its third straight year of deterioration, in this case due to problems with press freedom and the judiciary, and Albania’s score declined for a second year, in large part due to an ongoing political crisis linked to the disputed 2009 parliamentary elections.



While the collapse of the authoritarian regimes of the former Soviet Union may not be imminent, it is clear that they suffer from many of the same fatal flaws that led to the Arab revolts of 2011. These governments have suppressed legitimate opposition, hobbled the development of civil society, and otherwise monopolized political and economic life. Critically, they have also undermined the viability of independent news media, which is a keystone for the development of a democratic society.

Lacking established succession mechanisms and leaning heavily on informal, personality-based patronage networks with presidential families at their core, the region’s autocracies are inherently unstable and pose risks similar to those of the former regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Ultimately, the former Soviet states that are currently languishing under despotic rule must confront, or be confronted by, the myriad problems they have left unresolved. Any further delay will only impose a heavier burden on those who inherit the authoritarian legacy.

The democratic world clearly missed opportunities over the years in the Middle East by consistently casting its lot with the region’s authoritarian leaders, and acting under the assumption that ordinary citizens in these countries were not interested in freedom. One result of this failed approach is that instead of an orderly, negotiated, and sustainable process of reform and political opening, policymakers must now contend with tumultuous revolutions whose outcomes are by no means certain. Democratic states have an undeniable strategic interest in avoiding a similar scenario in the former Soviet Union.

The examples of the countries examined in Nations in Transit demonstrate both the positive effects of assistance from established democracies on the reform process, and the threats presented by neglect and the malign influence of authoritarian neighbors. To ensure long-term stability and prosperity in the region and around the world, supporters of democracy must counter authoritarian efforts to stave off change, actively encourage attempts to build democratic institutions, and maintain vigilance in countries where recent accomplishments are still vulnerable to the toxic residue of authoritarian governance.


Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, Tyler Roylance, Eliza B. Young, and Natasha Geber assisted in the preparation of this report.