Causes of Authoritarianism in the Former Soviet Republics

Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.. Creator: Heinrich Boell Foundation. All rights reserved.

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Causes of Authoritarianism in the Former Soviet Republics


The collapse of the Soviet empire, like the earthquakes that brought down Austria-Hungary and the German Empire in 1918 and the fascist regimes in 1945, seemed a brilliant opportunity for democracy. All the new states that stumbled out of the ruins of the Soviet bloc, except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, seemed indeed to be moving toward democracy in the early 1990s. And all the countries of East Central Europe and the Balkans, subjected to Communist authoritarian in 1945, have now reached it or seem about to do so. The hardest case, Albania, a former Ottoman colony with a Muslim majority, traditionally torn by blood feuds, and then repressed by a form of communism more fanatic, rigid and isolating than the Soviet one, seems poised to begin the formal process of admission to the EU this fall. It has been a member of NATO, the other democratic club, since April 2009.

Of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union itself, however, only the three former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, effectively communized only in 1944-45, could be considered as real consolidated democracies.  In their political regimes, all the other new states contrast vividly with the states of East Central Europe and the Balkans, although those states had an equally authoritarian past (except the Czech Republic and Slovakia), then the same experience of totalitarian rule. Amazingly, the process of democratization has proved more difficult in these former Soviet republics than in sub-Saharan Africa, with its huge problems. Although it is still early, this suggests that there are specific difficulties standing in the way of democracy in this area, in the way that Latin America has some specific obstacles to democracy in its heritage of colonial rule and the deep ethnic and class differences that emerged from it, with the resulting Chavez-style caudillismo and demagogic populism.

In this article, I attempt to explore briefly what are the causes of continuing authoritarian rule in the former Soviet space. This inquiry is vital if the aspiration for freedom in these countries is ever to be successful. And there are real opportunities. They seem obvious in Georgia, for example, where the landslide election of October 1, 2012, swept aside the increasingly authoritarian National Movement and, to the astonishment of most Georgians, it gave up power. I base my observations particularly on this case, but in a general sense most of what I will argue is applicable to the whole South Caucasus and to the other post-Soviet republics, who shared the same institutions and habits for so long. Because many ideas about post-Soviet authoritarianism are already part of the intellectual landscape, I will deal with both causes I conclude to be real and with some that are frequently assumed.

Authoritarianism of traditional culture?

Observing universities, hospitals, businesses, and to some degree families, one sees the same authoritarian style of management as in national government. Decisions are made at the top; there is little discussion or delegation of authority. This observation makes one wonder whether the deepest sources of authoritarianism are in tradition hundreds or thousands of years old, a view that contributes to Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian masochism: the sense that everything is defective in your native republic, and that it is your fault as an Armenian, Azerbaijani or Georgian. In fact, the traveler sees these same problems from Hungary and Romania to Tajikistan, although the historic cultures are quite different. This should raise significant doubts about this explanation of authoritarianism. Soviet rule existed for so long that it is difficult to distinguish the traditional and Soviet components of authoritarianism. The question is reassessed below after some Soviet sources of authoritarianism are considered.


In the NGO community there is a view that intolerance, of homosexuals or new religious faiths, for instance, is a primary source of authoritarianism. There is some relationship between these things, as we will see below. But the modern style of tolerance developed only in the mid-twentieth century, while democracies and even liberal democracies have existed far longer. Democratic self-rule is quite compatible with intolerance; consider India, where some members of the society still loathe to touch others. On the other hand, there is much tolerance of certain kinds in South Caucasian societies: politicians widely viewed as drug addicts have been fairly successful in politics, some viewed as homosexuals even more successful. Is it not more persuasive to think that their acceptance comes from cynicism about politics (see below), connected with low expectations of others and even of oneself, an acceptance close to a kind of toleration?

The Impact of Soviet Communism: Destruction of the Public World

There cannot be control of the public business by the people in general without a public space to control. The Roman Empire destroyed the public world by the combination of centralized despotism with empty exhortations to public spirit. Over a thousand years, European kings had to struggle to recreate a public space between the extremes of feudalism, based on the family and the patron-client relationship, and the universal, unworldly Church. Soviet Communism did the same in seventy years in a much more extreme way, with more paternalism and more tyranny. The result is the post-Soviet apartment house lobby, the uncared-for, dirty and crumbling entrance to apartments that can be immaculate, rich and gleaming. In politics, the consequence of the destruction of the public world is the assumption, frequently heard in all these countries, that politics is dirty. It is not only an opinion of poor people; some businessmen who could be influential will greet an inquiry into their opinion of politics with a snort of derision.

Helplessness of Individuals

At times, most of us feel overwhelmed by the difficulties of life. Many people feel constantly that way. But a difference between post-Soviet and American societies is that reactions to life that are furtive in America are much more open in former Soviet countries. Soviet paternalism and tyranny, in combination, left many individuals feeling helpless to handle their own personal business. They are seeking someone who is benevolent and more confident to take charge of it. Over time, the latter person turns into a patron, those who are more helpless into clients. The well-known tendency to form “family circles” and patron-client networks was vastly aided by the inefficiency of the Soviet economy, which meant you could obtain necessary goods and services only by svyazy, connections. The continuing importance of svyazy pushes people away from the public world that is being slowly recreated; they do not seek benefits through “categorical” demands, for instance, higher pensions for all old people, but through individual intervention of a relative, friend or patron who can help you personally. Patron-client networks do promote a kind of authoritarianism throughout the culture, but its immediate source is the Soviet system, not traditional culture.

Passivity of the Public

An aroused and active public is dangerous to authoritarianism, but the Soviet Union left behind it a public that remains quiet except at intervals of excitement: compare the demands made by Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia with those made by Germans evicted from their eastern territories in 1945. Even where an aroused public has toppled authoritarian governments, as in Georgia in 2003 and 2012, most people who have suffered unjust treatment by the previous government are not bringing cases against its officials or against the state. They are waiting, maybe hoping. In Georgia, there has a marked increase in public activism on political issues since September 2012, but it is still limited to parts of the society such as the Tbilisi elite, activist students, the UNM core group, and the contending factions of the Georgian Dream coalition in the provinces. The public is more passive because political parties, sensing that the people are not really sovereign, often do not really try to appeal to them and probably do not know how.

Lack of Intermediary Groups

Post-Soviet authoritarianism is fragile, as the fates of Gamsakhurdia, Elchibey, Ter-Petrosyan, Shevardnadze and Saakashvili show in the Caucasus. One could add Kravchuk, Kuchma, Voronin, Akaev, and Bakiev elsewhere. But the Soviet Union annihilated public and legitimate intermediary groups between the state and the family, except the ethnic group and to some extent the religious confession. As a result, “interest aggregation” is difficult, parties weak, mere shadowy projections of the state or weak oppositions, frequently for sale, business passive and state-dependent, and NGOs parasitic on foreign subsidies. These weak bases for a democratic alternative allow authoritarianism, in spite of its lack of legitimacy, to remain standing most of the time.

The Petrodollar Effect

Two states in the Caucasus (Azerbaijan and Russia) and two in Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) do not depend on the population for the chief source of their revenue, but on oil or gas. It has become conventional wisdom that oil wealth blocks democratization, because the government can buy support through large revenue that can be spent at its discretion. This conventional wisdom is right. But we need to differentiate carefully between the levels of oil wealth at various times and between more and less oil-rich states. In Azerbaijan, the Popular Front government that negotiated the first contract received one third of the payment immediately--seventy million dollars—and was overthrown by two hundred ill-armed toughs.  Azerbaijan’s oil revenue is scheduled to diminish beginning in 2015. In any case, none of the ex-Soviet states possess the oil wealth relative to population that has enabled the Gulf shaikhdoms and Brunei to put their entire native populations on welfare. Rather, oil wealth tends to spent on a narrow circle of supporters of the government, increasing the bitterness of the wider population.

Lack of Rule of Law

No modern authoritarian government is entirely comfortable with rule of law. But it is exceptionally weak in the former Soviet republics, even in comparison with highly authoritarian governments like those that recently existed in Pakistan or Serbia or Malaysia. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the most influential interpreters of competitive authoritarianism as a type of regime, consider that one of its characteristics is the courts’ “incomplete control by the executive.”(1) But during the nine-year rule of the National Movement in Georgia, a generally softer form of authoritarianism than those in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and most other post-Soviet republics, the courts were totally controlled by Mikheil Saakashvili. In all the 7,296 criminal trials held by the Tbilisi Civil Court in 2010 there were exactly three full acquittals.(2) These “trials” were Aztec punitive rituals, not trials in the Western sense. And democratic-minded Georgian young people prove, in interviews, not to be especially aware of this problem, showing that it is more the inevitable outcome of existing authoritarianism. Bidzina Ivanishvili, elected Prime Minister of Georgia in 2012 with a mandate to reverse misuse of the judiciary by his predecessor, talks as though he need only stop interfering with the courts for them to function like Western courts. We need more research into the sources of lack of rule of law and the incomplete awareness of the problem. Some mystery still cloaks this subject.

There are obvious causes, however. The newly independent states of the former Soviet Union inherit the Marxist disdain for law as a mere covering for the selfish interests of a group. Kleptocracy, to be considered next, could not exist if there was real rule of law. But perhaps the problem lies deeper. The society in general is one in which there has not been, for many generations, any idea of neutral fairness that does not benefit one individual or group as opposed to another. In the modern world sports are supposed to embody that idea, and the communist approach to sports typified their contemptuous reaction to it. East German swimmers were inflated with air hoses to decrease their frictional resistance as they moved through the water. The point was in no way to play the game by the rules, but to win. This spirit still prevails in the Soviet successor states.


Communism was succeeded by political regimes that lacked legitimacy, because they were neither Communist nor liberal-democratic. Nor were they supported by social groups with “aggregated” interests. As Eduard Shevardnadze said at a summit meeting he was forced to attend by Russian power, “If I had 200 men who were loyal to me, I wouldn’t be here.”(3) To stand up on the slippery mud of post-Soviet disorder, political leaders had to buy support. They bought it by allowing the powerful to steal the public patrimony. The connection between politics and wealth exerts a pervasive influence on the motives of the political elite, above all in cases where sharing or temporarily giving up power might be in the best political interests of Presidents and their allies. Observers of President George H. W. Bush saw that he had little energy in 1992 to campaign for re-election. Similarly, living in Britain in 2009, I observed the scant enthusiasm of the Labor Party for holding on to power in the face of Gordon Brown’s unpopularity. Such willingness to give up power will seem strange to those who live in the former Soviet space. But it is rational. Even post-Soviet governments lose power. And all political administrations lose energy, ideas and enthusiasm with time. The second four-year terms of American Presidents are almost always less successful, and less popular, than the first. By taking a vacation from power, Western parties revisit their sources of inspiration, recover their ideals, recruit fresh members, and restore their zeal for the political fight.

In the former Soviet Union, however, giving up power risks losing your wealth and depriving your family and friends of their wealth.  Thus the new realities that arrived with the destruction of Communist politics, the importance of money and the potential to gain unheard-of wealth through privatization, act to perpetuate the basic drive of Communist politics, the maintenance of a centralized monopoly over power. Moreover, this new property is usually legally questionable, easy to get when the judiciary is in friendly hands, easy to lose if it is in other hands, so the new, post-Communist importance of money and greed makes rulers vulnerable to blackmail, another reason never, ever, to give up power. For this reason, the merger of political power and money is a crucial support for the survival of authoritarianism in the former Soviet Union.

Mutual Hostility of Family Circles and Patronage Networks

The biggest surprise of the period after the October 1, 2012 election in Georgia is the failure of the the National Movement to fall apart. Georgia’s National Movement, like the Armenian National Movement (ANM) in Armenia, had become government parties, full of opportunists like all government parties. But most of their leaders have not abandoned them. Why? I believe the answer lies in the behavior of the patronage networks that characterize these countries under the influence of Soviet assumptions about man. If your patronage network is competing with other networks for scarce resources, it will expect hostility from them and treat them with hostility. Unless the members of a defeated group stick together, worse will follow. And attitudes toward the outsider or “other” are colored by ingrained Soviet expectations about human nature.

Cynicism about People

When Chairman of the Georgian Parliament Nino Burjanadze left the government before the May 2008 Parliamentary Elections, she was “sold,” for one Lari ($ .64), in thanks for her efforts “in the development of Parliament and democracy,” a villa with 31,696 square meters of land in Tskneti, the most fashionable summer house area above Tbilisi. The purpose was clearly to keep her from joining the opposition.  She still was expected to pay taxes on its value, then understated at 2.8 million Laris. After the Saakashvili government was weakened by the war, and Burjanadze finally joined the opposition, the taxation authorities “discovered” that its real value was 12 million Laris, confirmed by obedient courts, so that the taxes were four times as great; Burjanadze’s reward was auctioned off.(4) What this incident displays is an assumption on both sides that the government and all other politicians are selfish and ruthless. But giving Burjanadze’s villa, or accepting it, alike would be huge scandals in consolidated democracies. It must have been assumed that the general public is also utterly cynical: that they expect unfair and unprincipled conduct from the government and from other politicians, and that no one in politics will pay any price for openly exposing their own cynicism. The leaders who ruled Georgia from 2004 to 2012 did not bother to conceal their absolute shamelessness.

What is the origin of this amazing cynicism about people? The Soviet regime was founded against the bourgeois world. The late Nathan Leites, who brilliantly articulated the basic Bolshevik approach to politics through painstaking analysis of the works of Lenin and Stalin, expressed the basis of Lenin’s “Operational Code,” or set of tactical maxims, as follows:

...[I]t is an think believe that in domestic or in international relations there can, essentially, be anything between “classes” and states but utter incompatibility of interests and fierce conflict of wills...
As long as the question “Who—Whom? has not been decided by the consolidation of world communism—and it cannot be decided short of that—the world is, basically, in a state of high tension. If the Party were to forget that, it would not reduce the tension but merely render certain its own annihilation in the further course of the conflict. ..The Party is obliged to strive for the annihilation of its enemies, a necessary condition for the fulfillment of its mission

Even within the Party, Lenin himself said,
It was necessary to arouse among the masses hatred, aversion and contempt for those who had ceased to be members of a united party, who had become political enemies...Against such enemies I then conducted—and in the event of a split shall always conduct—a fight of extermination...Are there any limit to permissible struggle...? There are no limits to such a struggle set by any Party standards, nor can there be any such.... (6)

A corollary of this view is that all opponents are utterly selfish and ruthless, and, like the Bolsheviks themselves, are pursuing far-reaching aims--and are determined to push them to victory. Lenin wrote in 1918, when with the end of the First World War there was a glimpse of peace and relaxation:
There remains now only...the group of victors, the British and French imperialists, which is preparing to divide up the whole world among the capitalists, has set itself the aim of overthrowing the Soviet regime in Russia at any cost.... (7)

Originally, only two groups were exempt from this Social Darwinist view of the world: the Proletariat and its vanguard, the Communist Party. Here, the communist militants had vast expectations about the wonderful potential of human beings.  Huge changes were staked on the expectation of the arrival of a “new man,” for example, a collective farmer who cares more about the kolkhoz animals than his own. The new man did not arrive in the numbers expected.  Beginning in 1921, when the victory of the Proletariat in the Civil War was followed by peasant revolts, a rash of strikes and the Kronstadt Mutiny, the Communist Party became disillusioned with the workers and peasants themselves. By the end of the Soviet Union, every issue of every newspaper gave evidence that the Party now regarded the workers as selfish, lazy, and needing constant exhortation to remember their heroic aims. The exhortations to partiinost’ [Party spirit], aktivnost’ [activism], better rhythm in work, and so forth, that constantly streamed forth from the pages of Kommunist, Bakinskiy Rabochiy or Zarya vostoka implied a blaming of ordinary people, a blaming that became a psychological burden. Soviet official interactions began to be pervaded by low expectations about ordinary people. David Satter has chronicled very well how people were constantly mistreated and humiliated. As the Party itself devoured its own body in a succession of blood purges, then in less brutal waves of dismissals, both accompanied by campaigns of kompromat against the losing side, this dark, cynical view of the whole world became extended to the whole of humanity, probably including the leaders themselves.

As a result of Soviet cynicism, members of the opposing group are regarded as enemies who are utterly despicable, and against whom Lenin’s “fight of extermination” must be waged.(8) Intolerance of opposition keeps alive authoritarianism, while disbelief in the capabilities of the public to rule itself or solve its own problems blocks the diffusion of power. A Georgian businessman close to the then-ruling UNM told me about the government’s economic strategy, “Well, I guess that deep down they [the UNM elite] don’t trust the population’s capacity to develop the country.” And the same cynicism affects the people at large, who ought to rule in a democracy. Affected by this deeply rooted Soviet cynicism, they do not believe in their own capacities for self-rule.

The Ideology of Modernization

During perestroika and after, the low expectations from ordinary people began to be supplemented by a new kind of scorn from Westernizing reformers, as Peter Reddaway has ably argued. Not entirely wrongly, ordinary inhabitants of the former Soviet space were seen as poorly fitted to enter the shining new world of democracy and the market. Before the National Movement administration of Tbilisi introduced checkers on buses, as many as half the passengers did not pay for their rides. A note of contempt soon returned to official dealings with ordinary people.  Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had the following exchange, not untypical, with a Newsweek interviewer:    

Nemtsova: Who wants your resignation?
Saakashvili: Mostly unemployed people. We fired about 250,000 people as a result of our reforms. A big percentage of these people have not managed to find themselves in the new economy. Fighting corruption and crime, we put thousands of people in jail. In Tbilisi alone we convicted 8,000 people; all of their relatives are outside today, asking me to resign.

In other words, Saakashvili’s opponents were unsuccessful, defective people, and he does not feel responsible for those people whose lives were disturbed or, sometimes, deeply damaged, by his reforms.  One met this attitude often in government circles. Where there are not yet effective democratic institutions it leads away from any kind of democratic responsibility to the people in general.

Like the Communist experience, the experiences of Armenia under the ANM and Georgia under the National Movement show how dangerous to democracy an ideology of modernization can be. It implies that the present is bad, including the people who live in it, and goes easily with the belief that democracy has many preconditions. Perhaps democracy needs to be postponed until these preconditions are secured. Because it is about the coming of the future, it easily allows its proponents to believe that some authoritarianism now will bring democracy later. Probably there were many people in Georgia’s National Movement who genuinely held that belief; it was more comfortable to believe it than to rigorously examine just what was emerging from the ideals you had held. Yet the ideology of modernization is not just the fault of certain individuals and parties, like the National Movement in Georgia or the reformers under Gorbachev and Yel’tsin. It is latent in the contempt for tradition and religion widespread among democratic activists in the former Soviet republics, and it is something that the Western democracies themselves are trying to teach to the societies they genuinely want to free.

For seventy years, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union took on the titanic task of abolishing the exploitation of man by man. The peoples of the former Soviet Union live among the rusting wreckage that resulted from this grandiose attempt. It resulted in societies where exploitation is omnipresent and universally expected, and people lack the self-confidence to challenge it. These conditions are exceptionally bad for democracy, and its lack of success in the aftermath of long-continued communist rule should not surprise us. The rule of a few for the few is thinly covered by pretences of democracy: elections, Parliaments, courts, and so forth. So all the post-communist regimes are caught in embarrassing contradictions that are inescapable in competitive authoritarianism. I recently expressed the aspirations and constraints of such a regime as follows:
The government attack on Georgian Dream [before the 2012 election] shows how strange competitive authoritarianism is. Opposing what they viewed as a treasonous enemy, Saakashvili and his lieutenants found that they had imprisoned themselves in a box of democratic rules. Forcing themselves to fight within their own box, they used weapons that laid bare their unwillingness to give up power and their contempt for any ideas of neutral fairness. Yet these weapons failed. (10) 

The Soviet tragedy is followed by the competitive-authoritarian comedy. As he looks out from his new palace in Baku, Ilham Aliev, the President of Azerbaijan, must feel he can do anything he wants. But he is still a captive of these contradictions of competitive authoritarianism. Meshed in them rulers will find themselves frustrated again and again, and people will again and again discover new opportunities for freedom.

(1) Steven A. Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13:2 (April 2002), 56. 
(2) “Acquittal Rate 0.04% in Tbilisi City Court,” Civil Georgia Online Magazine, available at
(3) Interview with Jirair Libaridian, First Deputy Foreign Member of Armenia in 1993.
(4) “Court Upholds GEL 1.25 mln [sic] Tax Claim against Burjanadze,” Civil Georgia, August 18, 2009.
(5) Nathan Leites, A Study of Bolshevism, (Gencoe: Free Press, 1954), 28-29. 
(6) V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, (New York: International Publishers, 1943 ), vol. 3, 489-495 (1907), Lenin’s italics.
(7) V. I. Lenin, Speech to the Central Executive Committee of Soviets, October 22, 1918, Collected Works, (New York: International Publishers, 1929-.), vol. 23, p.255, italics mine.
(8) V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, (New York: International Publishers, 1943 ), vol. 3, 489-495 (1907), Lenin’s italics.
(9) “Mikheil Saakashvili: ‘Where Are My Western Friends?,’” Newsweek, August 20, 2009.
(10) “A New Chance for Georgian Democracy?,” with Alexi Gugishvili, Journal of Democracy, January 2013.

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