Political Minutes: Post-Soviet Authoritarianism

Thursday evening, Professor Mitchell Orenstein of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies presented his paper, “Post-Soviet Authoritarianism: The Influence of Russia in Its Near Abroad” as the last lecture in an eighteen-month series by the Harriman Institute. The paper is co-authored by Professor David R. Cameron of Yale University. Professor Orenstein’s research ranges from international economic policy to pension reform and economic transition in Central and Eastern European states. Orenstein began his presentation with a comment on the nature of previous research done on the democratic transition of former Soviet states to democracy. Much of this body of work, he noted, has been on the participation of the European Union in its Eastern European member states. Notably absent is discussion of the influence of the Russian Federation, the former hub of the USSR and the present-day hegemon in the region. This is interesting for Orenstein and Cameron, especially given Russia’s linkages and leverage in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and the formation of alliances in the region.

Contemporary states previously under Moscow’s control have had widely varying degrees of success with democratization according to evidence from Freedom House, the main body of data used by Orenstein and Cameron. The best examples, according to the paper, are Poland and Belarus – two neighbors in similar circumstances before the collapse of the Soviet Union that went in polar opposite directions afterwards. Poland’s government has evolved into a relatively free democracy, while Belarus finds itself today mired in dictatorship and repression of civil liberty. Additionally, there has been a sharp regional divergence between the Central Eastern European/Southeast European/Baltic states (which have become relatively more democratic) versus the non-Baltic FSU (which has digressed or stagnated in terms of democratic growth).

Orenstein then spoke of the two major opposing camps in discussions of Russia and her interactions with the FSU. On the one hand, so-called “hawks” believe that Russia is not democratic, that it supports undemocratic regimes, and that it undermines its neighbors in attempts towards democracy. On the other hand, “doves” are of the opinion that the Russian Federation is neutral toward democracy abroad, that it does not undermine regimes, and that the country is ineffective – even if the government cared enough to intervene, their attempts would be rendered fruitless by a lack of significant influence in the area. Orenstein characterized their research as being from a more “hawkish” perspective.

The first graph in Orenstein’s presentation tracked the changes in levels of democracy between 1999 and 2010 for Russia and its entire region using data from Freedom House. On the top right portion, or the most democratic, was located a group of European Union member states who had achieved and maintained higher levels of democratization, like Latvia and Lithuania. On the other hand, the bottom left part of the graph showed a group that had settled into very low levels, like Belarus and the “Stan” group. Thirdly, a group of countries had collapsed entirely, demonstrating great movement across the graph. These countries included Russia itself and Armenia, notably. Finally, a select few countries had catapulted upwards in the opposite direction, countries like Croatia, Albania, and Bulgaria. According to the chart’s data, the Western Balkans could be seen to be democratizing quickly, while countries closer to Russia geographically had not seen such a level of change.

After presenting the graph, Orenstein briefly discussed the potential influence of the EU and previous research on the topic. While not sufficient to prove causation, it has been noted that the countries under the EU’s influence have seen greater levels of democratization than those further to the east. There are many other factors at play, however: the presence of a unified elite before the beginning of democratization, distance from the West, a high share of seats in the first election, etc. All of these factors correlate with democratization. Furthermore, on the spectrum from West to East, countries go from richer to poorer, from close to Brussels to close to Beijing, and from predominantly Protestant or Catholic to predominantly Muslim. Orenstein said no conclusion could be definitively drawn, but the EU is considered one of a set of factors playing a role in the democratization of member states.

Orenstein then turned to the linkages that exist between Russia and its near abroad. Being the internal hegemon in the area, Russia’s trade and exports, especially of oil and gas, dominate neighboring foreign markets. While not proof that Russia undermines democracy, this lends credence to the stance that it could use oil leverage if it wanted to. Furthermore, there is a number of cooperative organizations in Eurasia like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the GUAM organization that offer proof of extensive economic and political cooperation in the area.

When Orenstein finally turned to the discussion of potential Russian mechanisms for interference with democracy, he admitted that evidence is scarce and that the conclusion of his argument is based on the possibility of leverage, not exactly proof thereof. The Russian Federation, he said, may consider democratization a geopolitical move towards the influence of the West, which would not necessarily be in Russia’s best interest. Additionally, Russia may be influencing democracy unintentionally through the nature of business practices and other economic factors. In closing, Orenstein discussed the exciting nature of upcoming research in the field and emphasized that said research will be necessary to ascertain just how much Russia may be influencing its neighbors – his report merely shows that it could.