More than two decades ago, at a time when the world was witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union and its socialist economy, as well as the triumph of the free market and democracy, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted that liberalism would sweep away competing ideologies. But in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Fukuyama explains that democratization in Eastern Europe and Russia has not come easily.
RFE/RL: Which sociopolitical process in Eastern Europe and Russia do you consider the most significant and determinative of the future?
Francis Fukuyama: Unfortunately, I think much of what's happened in the recent past has been negative. So in Russia there's been a steady walking away from democracy ever since [Vladimir] Putin became president. And as time has gone on, I think Russia has become less democratic. There's no free competition of other political forces. There's a suppression of information, of freedom of expression, and so forth.
Ukraine is particularly disappointing because I think in 2003 it really looked like there is a chance for Ukraine to become a genuine democracy. But since the last election of President [Viktor] Yanukovych [in 2010], he's demonstrated that he still has these really authoritarian instincts. So I think that a lot of the trends in the region are not good for democracy.
RFE/RL: Why have so many post-Soviet countries found themselves under the threat of dictatorship?
Fukuyama: I think there are several reasons. First is the transition to and the attempt to create a democracy was very chaotic, and I think the democratic forces themselves were not united and they made mistakes. For example, in Ukraine, the Orange coalition was divided internally and they didn't do that great a job in governing.
But I think the deeper problem was the absence of strong institutions from the Soviet or from communist times. And so there are no political parties, there's no civil society, or very weak civil society. You had a state that was strong in its repressive power but not particularly strong in being able to deliver services or to act without a high level of corruption; there was very weak rule of law. So if you compare the former communist world -- to let's say Latin America, which also was under dictatorship during the 1960s-'70s -- there was less to build on. This is not to say that it won't happen in the future, but these institutions are very difficult to set up and it will take a while.
RFE/RL: What were some of the mistakes made by the United States in the region?
Fukuyama: I think that there were both mistakes of policy and probably mistakes of attention. So I think that in terms of policy, many Americans thought that if you simply got rid of a dictatorship then you'd have a functioning democracy. And I don't think there was adequate attention to the need to build institutions to support a democracy.
And then, I think that the United States probably could have done better, especially in Russia in the early days, to actually help try to consolidate a stronger democracy in the early 1990s. And then in terms of foreign policy, I think a lot of Russians turned against the United States because of NATO's expansion and so forth. Now this is controversial because in Eastern Europe this was something that was greatly desired, but it certainly made the Russians more skeptical about the West's intentions and so forth.
RFE/RL: You say that Russia is moving away from democracy. Does the fact that Russia surrounds itself with authoritarian countries and supports them also serve to consolidate its own authoritarian tendencies?
Fukuyama: I think that's right, that Russia doesn't have an interest in having a healthy democracy on its borders because that's going to give the wrong signals to its own people. So I think it's probably right that Russia would prefer to have other authoritarian neighbors around it.
And I think [that] increasingly you're seeing a lot of cooperation between Russia and these other dictatorships in terms of trying to re-create a single trade zone or economic space and unifying it through energy policy and through transportation and so forth.
RFE/RL: All attention from abroad is now mostly focused on Russia. Perhaps it might be prudent to also more systematically and carefully support democratic changes in neighboring countries?
Fukuyama: The United States does give a certain amount of democracy support, but this has led to reaction, as you're aware, on the part of all the governments there to pass laws forbidding civil society groups from taking money. The solution in places like Ukraine and Georgia has been to seek NATO membership. In principle I think that would be a good idea.
But as practical matter, that's actually not a wise thing because NATO is actually a military alliance that commits all of the other NATO members to go to war on behalf of one of their other members if they're attacked. And I think as a practical matter it's not feasible to accept either of those countries into the alliance. The EU is a different story because the EU is not a military alliance.
And so I think there are things that the Europeans could do to encourage reforms of institutions in all of those countries, especially Ukraine, to try to push them in a more democratic direction. But in the end I think the leverage of both the United States and Europe is limited in that part of the world.
RFE/RL: Why doesn't the EU offer Ukraine or Belarus membership in the EU?
Fukuyama: Well, I think the reason for that is pretty clear. I think there are many Europeans that think that the EU has expanded too rapidly as it is. They probably shouldn't have taken Greece in -- or at least they shouldn't have taken it into the eurozone. And many people now think that Bulgaria and Romania were let in prematurely because once they got in they've fallen backwards in terms of corruption and the functioning of their institutions.
And so there's a trade-off that the Europeans have to make that for foreign-policy purposes, it's better to have a big EU and to encourage as many people to join. But in terms of the health of the EU itself, it's easier to maintain a small EU because it's easier to maintain high standards within the EU. So they have to balance these two against each other.
RFE/RL: Concerning your view of the middle class's role in democratic change, do the middle classes in the region differ significantly from those in, say, Turkey or Brazil?
Fukuyama: The middle class has behaved very similarly in different parts of the world, so I don't think it's fundamentally different in Belarus, or Russia, or China, or Brazil, or Turkey. So I think more educated people have assets -- they own a house or a car or something. They're more concerned with politics, their values begin to change, they're more open to outside influence, and so forth. But it very much depends on their personal experiences.
So in Russia, a lot of middle-class people lived through the 1990s under [President Boris] Yeltsin and they remember this as a time of economic chaos and weakness externally. So they have these very bad associations of that period with democracy, so some of them end up supporting Putin.
But I think in the longer run there is a lot of evidence that says that once those memories fade and people can assume that the country is stable and relatively doing well economically, that they become interested in things like political participation, greater freedom, more individual choice in life, and then they don't accept authoritarian government as easily.
But it's not automatic, you know. It's not as if you had a certain level of income or education and automatically you become pro-democracy. It's more complicated than that.
RFE/RL: How is China going to influence changes in this respect?
Fukuyama: I think that China and the Chinese model is going to have a difficult time in the next 10 years because the economic model is not going to work as well as it did in the past. The growth rate is going to slow. China itself has got a big middle class now and, although they've been pretty much supportive of the regime, I don't think that's going to last as the economy slows.
So I think China in 10 years is going to look much less attractive as an alternative to Western democracy than it does right now.
RFE/RL: In your analyses, you often refer to Putin and Yanukovych but never mention Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. And this is common. You are far from the only researcher who excludes Belarus from your analysis. Why is that?
Fukuyama: I think the reason is that in both Russia and Ukraine there was more hope for real democracy at a certain point. So when Putin was put in place by Yeltsin, many people were hopeful that maybe this guy could restore some degree of order in Russia but he would still be a democrat. And similarly in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution, people had great hopes.
But unfortunately in Belarus you've had the same guy running the country virtually since the fall of communism. So it always seemed like a country that never had a moment when it looked like it was going to make a real breakthrough the way either Russia or Ukraine looked at some point.
And I can tell you, I had students from Belarus and I talked to people from there, trying to understand why this country went on such a different path than either Russia or Ukraine, and I still don't know.
Interview conducted on the sidelines of the Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program on Democracy and Development 2013 at Stanford University in California