The failure of post-Soviet bloc democratisation

Al-Jazeera, Qatar
April 19 2014

The failure of post-Soviet bloc democratisation

How to put post-Soviet republics on track for healthy and sustainable

by Vartan Oskanian

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former
foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.

The Ukrainian crisis has focused the world on Russia, bringing back
memories of the Cold War. By extension, attention is centred on the
Baltic States, the former Soviet republics and the countries of
Eastern Europe. In the process, the magnifying glass is on the paths
these countries have chosen since their independence, their political
evolution and ultimately to the state of their economies today.

The day the Soviet Union collapsed, the economies of Ukraine and
Poland were on similar footing. Both countries’ GDP per capita was the
same few thousand dollars. Today, Poland’s is nearly $14,000 per head,
more than three times that of Ukraine’s approximately $4,000.

The ratios of the three Baltic republics today, compared to the three
Caucasus republics, is the same, if one compares Estonia, Lithuania
and Latvia with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, minus the latter’s
oil revenues.

Books and studies providing insight into discrepancies between rich
and poor nations, successful and failed, offer reasons which abound
from geography to natural resources, and ethnic conflicts. But
increasingly, the new research narrows the reasons to two: good
governance and institutions.

Paul Collier in his ground-breaking The Bottom Billion and more
recently Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail point
out that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and
economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become
“extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of
only a few.

Healthy and sustainable development

Let me add my own picks to these reasons for the current state of
nations in the former Soviet republics. In my experience in and out of
government, we must rethink four fundamental notions if we are to put
our countries on the track to healthy and sustainable development.

First, we who have embarked on new, liberal, free-market development
have misunderstood “development” and its ensuing challenges and have
seen them as merely economic in nature. Development is a political
process, not an economic one. It requires political changes in society
and an organised process of engaging both elites and public, without
threatening one or discouraging the other. Development doesn’t mean
spending money on infrastructure alone; it means infrastructures that
are designed and maintained by a responsive state apparatus with
functioning governance systems.

Developing into a modern economy requires the provision of fair and
transparent public services. Access to the sea and endless barrels of
oil do not add up to a functioning economy. Only political will and a
change in political thinking can bring that about. Our countries must
develop politically in order to develop economically.

Second, pretence at democratisation is dangerous and
counterproductive. It distorts the relationship between government and
the governed, raising expectations that can’t be met, and obstructing
progress that could be taking place elsewhere in society. There are
many prosperous countries in the world which are not democratic, and
don’t pretend to be. Singapore is one example of a thriving country
where democratic rights are largely suspended; the United Arab
Emirates is another.

If the elites in our countries really only want economic development,
then there should not be a show about democratisation. Governments,
who repeat the predictable democratic formulations but don’t have
sufficient trust in their people to respect the electoral process, or
to govern openly, force citizens onto the streets.

Third, the Soviet-era definition of power continues to distort the
modern concept of legitimate authority. World leaders like Mahatma
Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King had no power but
operated from a position of authority. They accomplished things that
changed the world.

Except for a brief period immediately after independence, our
societies have not experienced governments who enjoy the consent of
the governed. Hard power, exclusive and brute power, hereditary power,
can continue to be exercised, but that will not assure our leaders the
authority they require to bring about significant, lasting political
or economic change. Economic growth, and change, depend foremost on
confidence and trust.

Wild, textbook capitalism

Finally, our adherence to the wild, textbook capitalism that we
adopted as we tore away from communism is not working. We can, and
must consider a more modern, compassionate form of public-private
partnership that will allow the state to intervene where necessary to
support strategically important sectors and enable economic growth.

Unfortunately, in the absence of rule of law, public-private has
sometimes come to mean using public resources to help private friends.
If certain entities in the private sector sink rather than swim, it
must not be because the government has not done its part to create an
enabling economic environment.

The fundamental bottleneck that impedes change in all these spheres is
the absence of institutions and an across-the-board acceptance of rule
of law. Although the developed world has been able to transfer support
and assistance, it has not succeeded in transferring strong
institutions. Even economist Milton Friedman, just a decade after the
fall of the Soviet Union, explained that if in the early days of
independence, his appeal to all the new states was before and above
all else, to privatise, a decade later, he had come to the realisation
that possibly it is rule of law that is more basic.

Indeed, we have to rethink these fundamental ideas. After all, we were
the subjects of an unprecedented experiment, and more than two decades
later, we have to graduate from the laboratory and shape our own

In this high-stakes geopolitical tug of war that has begun to play out
in Ukraine, our understanding of the importance of
institution-building and good governance will very much determine
whether we will be able to make the right choices and go after those
who have demonstrated the efficacy of good governance and institution

Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former
foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

From: Baghdasarian

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