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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington--Overcoming The Communist Past

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The fifth anniversary of the end of the U.S.S.R. this month is generating numerous articles attempting to explain why Russia and the other former Soviet republics have not made the transition to democracy, capitalism and partnership with the West.

Some articles place the blame on the communist past and point out how little time has elapsed since the collapse of the Soviet system.

Another group of essays has suggested that even more ancient cultural factors are at work, helping some countries to overcome their pasts and preventing others from doing so.

And still a third group has suggested that the international community has done either too little or the wrong things to help these countries put the communist past behind them.

While each of these perspectives offers something of value, almost all these essays reflect three largely unexamined assumptions about the possibility and nature of change in the countries that emerged from under the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union.

First, they are all predicated on the notion that the history of all these countries will necessarily proceed along a single path, some faster and some slower, but all in the direction of democracy, free markets and closer cooperation with the West.

This notion appears to be a curious mirror-image of earlier Marxist assumptions about historical development and the primacy of economics over politics. But even more important, it is not supported by on developments on the ground.

On the one hand, the former Soviet republics are moving in very different directions in terms of democratization, economic reform, and ties with the West. Some have made moves toward democracy, but others have moved toward more authoritarianism.

And on the other, there does not seem to be any clear correlation between progress on one measure and progress on another. Thus, some countries that have made the greatest progress in political reform have yet to make equal progress in the economic sphere.

Some that have made the economic breakthroughs have yet to follow up in the political arena.

And some of the most authoritarian countries now have better relations with the West than some more democratic countries do.

Second, the anniversary essays continue to reflect the notion that these countries can and will make these fundamental transformations because there is no other way.

Some commentaries now do acknowledge that five years is a very short time and that the transformations the West has called for are extremely difficult. But most continue to imply that these countries have no choice but to make these transitions quickly or be left behind.

This implicit notion ignores the multiple paths of development that countries across the world have pursued.

Some of them, for example, have achieved their economic goals without democracy. Others have been democratic but maintain a large state-owned sector in the economy.

And among each of these categories are countries with cooperative relationships with the West and countries that have anything but friendly ties.

Moreover and likely even more important, this assumption ignores other factors -- such as geography -- that will likely play a bigger role than economics and democratic reform in the lives of many of these states.

And third, these articles continue to imply that Western countries possess a road map with a single destination for the post-Soviet states.

The history of the Western countries themselves, however, calls such an assumption into question. Not only have they pursued very different paths in economics, politics, and foreign policy in the past, but they are not all at the same point on any one of these even now.

Consequently, suggestions that all these countries must march along the same path to the same goal, however noble that goal is, seem certain to produce more cynicism than action.

Nonetheless, these anniversary essays provide a useful lesson to all. There is no longer one state on this territory, but fifteen. And each is likely to have a future that reflects this new fact.