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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington: Three False Analogies

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the initial optimism about the development of the post-Soviet states was based on the assumption that three developments that were easy to see stood for three more fundamental transformations.

And much of the increasing pessimism about these states reflects a growing realization that each of these analogies is false or at least seriously incomplete.

The first of these false analogies is that privatization equals marketization. One of the most oft-cited statistics about transformations in these states is the percent of people now working for privately-owned firms or the percent of the gross domestic product that such firms produce.

But such statistics ignore an important fact of life in these countries. Under communism, their economies were dominated by monopolies and oligopolies. And the simple privatization of such firms does not produce a competitive market, but rather privately-owned monopolies and oligopolies who do not compete for profit but rather continue to be parasitic on the state in order to seek rents.

Even more serious, privatization of this type -- and it is especially true of Russia -- has resulted in radical income differentiation, with a few becoming very rich and many being impoverished. And it has discredited democracy in the eyes of many because of the often crude efforts by the newly rich to impose their will on the state.

The second false analogy that has plagued the analysis of developments in these states is the assumption that holding competitive elections equals democracy. While competitive elections are almost certainly a necessary condition for democracy, they are hardly a sufficient one.

There are at least three reasons for this: First, democracy is about the ability of political outsiders to be able to mobilize enough free resources to win election and then to take power without opposition. In all too many countries in this region, incumbents have shamelessly exploited not only their powers of office but also their control of the media to prevent that from happening.

Second, democracy is about the regular renewal of elites, but in many countries in this region, the very same people are in power now who were in power before communism collapsed. Indeed, many in the populations of these countries now speak of the "new central committee" or "nomenklatura democratization" to describe what has happened.

Third, democracy is also about tolerance and respect for individual rights. In all too many countries in this region, ethnic and religious minorities are openly discriminated against, and individual rights are trampled on by elites who believe either that they have some kind of right to rule or that only they can prevent chaos.

And the third false analogy is that quiescence equals stability, that the absence of open conflict within or between these countries is a mark of genuine legitimacy and a stable future. Such a conclusion is wrong for several reasons.

On the one hand, much of the supposed stability is the result of the exit of the populations from politics, the growing sense on the part of the population that it cannot influence political life and that political activity will not yield any real benefits.

That in turn means that in many countries no one active in politics can count on much real support from the population, a situation that further weakens the state structures in many of these countries.

And on the other, much of the quiescence now seen in many of these countries reflects the lack of traditions of political participation on the part of the population and its willingness to go along with just about anything the leaders say. And in some cases, it reflects the active use by the state of its still substantial coercive power.

To say all this is not to say that these countries have not made substantial progress since 1989 or 1991 or that the steps in each of these three areas are not important. Rather it is to call attention to the fact that those in the West who optimistically want to declare victory and go home are almost certainly wrong.

And most important of all, it is to note just how much more the peoples of these countries must do if they genuinely want to be stable, free market democracies.