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Governing in the Ex-Soviet Space

Fall 2013 Features

Governing in the Ex-Soviet Space

Governing in the Ex-Soviet SpaceRussians don’t eat their children. Nor do their former Soviet brethren. Now how do they all govern in this post-Soviet century?

Vladimir Putin once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He was perhaps exaggerating, on an analytical scale, but he hinted at one clear truth: Gorbachev did not intend or desire the disintegration of the USSR or the Soviet project. Far from it. After all, no competent head of state wills the failure of his or her state, whatever its pathologies – particularly the failure of a state of world-systemic consequence.

The hagiography of Mikhail Gorbachev in the West is a strange beast. While Gorbachev’s instincts were manifestly progressive and reformist – seeking to blunt the extremes and idiosyncrasies of the Soviet system, and to make up a growing economic, strategic and legitimacy gap with the West – that he lost the Soviet state in toto speaks to gross incompetence, not heroism. At best, the heroism was accidental, and so the Russian people and Russian elites remain to this day properly bemused by the Western ascription of intense virtue to the last leader of the Soviet empire. And the Russians and their non-Russian post-Soviet brethren properly ask, some two decades after the fall of the USSR: what is good and competent governance in the post-USSR? Let us explore this question – first in strategic-geopolitical terms, and second in political terms.

All of the former Soviet space’s 15 states – from Russia in the east to the ‘stans’ in the middle, the Caucasian states in the south and the Baltic states in the west – live in the context of what Ukrainian strategist Grigoriy Sytnyk of Kiev’s Higher School of Public Administration has called the continuing disintegration of the USSR. This means that the structures, methods and, to be sure, psychology of Soviet governance and Soviet society are to this day still being unwound and disentangled. This is because the Soviet project not only created very peculiar (indeed, robust) algorithms of public administration, but also a very specific type of person – one who by the mid-1970s was being called ‘Soviet man’ – an ideal-type who had an identifiable mindset, values set, and risk-reward profile. And because the Soviet Kremlin governed not only in the material frame, but so deeply and ruthlessly in the mental frame, it should come as little surprise that the construction of new national and state frameworks and ideologies in the post-Soviet space is still in a stage of ‘quantum’ uncertainty – embryonic, stochastic, fragile. Post-Soviet man, in other words, is making up his future as he goes. And whether he succeeds or fails in fashioning for himself a post-Soviet telos is still an open and vexed question.

In seeding new institutions and engineering a new statecraft, the new generations of post-Soviets are living a strange paradox: in their struggle to invent the new, they often end up reinventing what once was – in the old USSR, of course – often in near-incomprehensible ignorance that such institutions, assets and capabilities ever existed (perverse ideology aside). Bref, not only are the populations of the post-Soviet states socially anomic (as Leonid Kosals of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics argued in GB’s Fall 2012 issue), but these same populations are also politically anomic in the most profound ways. The social anomie refers to the lack of credible moral authorities in most of the former Soviet states. The political anomie means, not unrelatedly, that the post-Soviet generations have, in purging their systems of Soviet poison and rot, unconsciously discarded all that was successful in the Soviet system: the elite educational institutes, the institutions of high culture, the Nobel Prize-winning scientific projects, the sports machinery, and an advanced tradition of international strategy (again, Russian imperial brutality aside).

The challenge, therefore, for all of the post-Soviet states is to set legitimate and enduring psychological and institutional anchors for themselves – that is, to lay the constitutional and cultural groundwork for governance and for improving the welfare of the people over the course of the rest of the century. And yet only a handful of these post-Soviet states will be successful in this pioneering task; that is, not all will survive over the long term.

Geopolitically, nearly all of the former Soviet states continue to revolve, electron-like, around the Russian nucleus. (We leave aside, for the time being, the ‘strong force’ and ‘weak force’ dynamics within the Russian federation.) All of the current governing elites in these countries remain Russophilic and have deep networks of relationships – professional and personal – in Russia. If the three Baltic states are somewhat more Europe-leaning (indeed, full members of the EU and NATO), then the first imperative for all of the other states is to find the right degree – the sweet spot, as it were – of distance versus proximity vis-à-vis Moscow. Total divorce is neither desirable nor, in truth, a serious option.

For Belarus and Kazakhstan, for example, a formal customs union with Russia has already been agreed. Armenia, too, has just acceded to the customs union, not least because of Yerevan’s reliance on Moscow for military support in the matter of Nagorno-Karabakh. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may well also soon join the customs union. Ukraine, at nearly 46 million people the second largest of the post-Soviet states, has been invited and courted (carrots and sticks alike), as have other former Soviet states. Even Georgia, in the post-Saakashvili era, has not closed the door on the union. In many cases, the grand strategy for many of these post-Soviet states is to dance promiscuously between the Russian and European poles, adding a third Chinese pole before long – if they can. If this dance is done well, it can give these smaller states critical marge de manœuvre; if not, these states will again before long become vassals to Moscow.

As for Russia itself, it quite obviously is the only country in the former Soviet system with significant strategic capacity (and a history of strategic extroversion), and indeed the tradition and will to use such capacity. There having miraculously been no great war at the collapse of the Soviet Union, there nevertheless ensued a large number of small inter-state and intra-state conflicts – some of which remain frozen or quasi-frozen today: Nagorno-Karabakh, as mentioned, but also, among others, Transnistria, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Only one real war has been launched by Russia since the collapse of the USSR – against Georgia for a few months in 2008. This is a remarkable record of non-pugilism for a major power (Western powers have been far more aggressive in the post-Cold War era), but also unique for Russia over the course of its history. Whether it will endure remains to be seen.

Russian behaviour in the matter of Syria is instructive for understanding Moscow’s view of the world. Leaving aside Russian anti-Americanism and the numerous secondary motives for Russian resistance to Western pressure on Damascus (all countries naturally having many motives in international affairs), Russia is deeply concerned – more than Western countries – with systemic stability: that is, avoiding scenarios that, typically in contravention of international law, would put at strategic cross-purposes Russia and one or more other great powers (notably, the US, but also possibly China). Russia in this sense puts a proper premium not only on internal stability (knowing that if Russia collapses internally, the world changes), but also on an international order in which non-systemic wars – even if they shock the conscience – may be ignored or, in the alternative, treated as long as the treatment does not tend toward direct clash with the other major states. The reasoning behind this calculus is not uncompelling: as Russia knows all too well, great clashes between great powers lead to mass casualties, in many cases due to the systemic destabilization that comes from such military collision. And the casualties from such systemic clashes are very likely to be several orders of magnitude larger than the casualties that otherwise shock the conscience.

In the matter of Syria, then, for all of the caricatures of his position, and even if he has not altogether articulated the implied logic of this position, Putin has been essentially in the right. If President Obama argues for upholding the norm banning the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict, then Putin can be said to be upholding a perhaps even more important norm (that is, one that saves more lives, in the net) – to wit, the one that holds that great powers will not go to war against each other, and short thereof, will avoid crossing swords with one another, militarily.

On Putin’s logic, the international system has, since the end of WW2, been premised on the idea that mutually contradicting vetoes in the UN Security Council among the great powers will help to prevent war between these same powers, and therefore avert catastrophic casualties (the legacy of the last century). It follows that if the US and Russia, or Russia and China, or China and the US, do not go to war, then we have success – on all hands, a rather de minimis standard of success. The world is, as a system, stable, and casualties (including civilian casualties) are minimized, although clearly not eliminated. If, on the other hand, lesser powers like, say, Canada and Denmark, or Ecuador and Colombia, go to war, this may well be tragic, but there is no systemic or international-institutional imperative to stop such conflicts (possible breaches of international law notwithstanding). Similarly, if Syria implodes, resulting in mass civilian casualties, it may well be desirable to staunch these casualties (and morally distasteful to allow them to continue), but this is not systemically imperative, as long as the disintegration of Syria does not threaten to lead to war among great powers. And if any outside intervention in Syria threatens to issue in such war among great powers (as with, say, an American intervention that butts up against critical Russian or Chinese interests, perhaps resulting in some clashes and cross-border spillovers that could escalate into full war), then such an intervention is systemically dangerous and is to be discouraged (on prudential grounds).

Politically, all of the former Soviet states have highly centralized, unitary structures inherited from the Soviet ‘power vertical’ system (imagine an ‘iron’ vector of constitutional power driven downward and outward, through the medium of presidential nominations, budgetary levers and administrative control, from the centre to the regions, oblasts and provinces of each state). This may suggest an inherent systemic democratic deficit of governance, but it also suggests that these states, from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, may be easily ‘moved,’ as it were – to real democracy or, to be sure, its opposite. As such, an enlightened leader or leadership team may exploit the power-vertical system in order to quickly introduce new curricula and new laws, appoint new talent (provided it exists) and, with good geopolitical luck, apply sustained pressure to the national system in a way that is completely foreign to Western democracies. And, of course, it could also go the other way – a gifted, yet fundamentally devious leader could push the entire system to totalitarian ends with considerable rapidity.

In Russia, Putin has proved to be the most competent of all the post-Soviet leaders in using the power vertical to reconsolidate the centre (the Kremlin) and the prestige of Russia’s security class (the siloviki). Alas, having by his early second term achieved the goal of reconstituting the Russian state, he has now taken on a third mandate without any meaningful policy programme. And this, to be sure, is where he and Russia may be vulnerable over the medium term: the absence of substantive reforms in the political-administrative, economic and social policy domains, having been masked for some time by high oil prices and a quite idiosyncratic brand of nationalism (most post-Soviet states having also developed idiosyncratic nationalist narratives for purposes of state-building), could well be exposed once the commodity markets turn. Indeed, this could expose Russia to catastrophic systemic collapse – a disaster for Russia, the former Soviet space, and likely the world.

Ukraine is another important case study. Contrary to appearances, it is, after the three Baltic states, the post-Soviet space’s most democratic country. However, it also has among the least developed cultures of self-governance among these same states. Having enjoyed little more than a year of true self-government – in the event, between 1918 and 1919, under history professor-turned-president Mikhail Grushevsky – before its independence at the fall of the USSR, it is by no means manifest that Ukraine will or should continue to exist as a self-governing state in the decades to come. Its survival dance is exceedingly delicate. The Ukrainian state must still be stood up, and the country’s future must be secured. Whether this happens will depend to a great extent on the skill and luck of Kiev’s governing classes.

As such, the relevant question or ‘frame’ for gauging the future of Ukraine is not democracy versus non-democracy – but rather pioneering competence versus the absence thereof. The lack of a deep tradition of Ukrainian self-government means that, since the disintegration of the Soviet governing class (which once tended to poach the very best and brightest Ukrainians in the service of Moscow), Ukraine has had to spend the last 20 years creating (or finding) its own governing class virtually ex nihilo. Such manufacturing of ‘elites’ is happening, with varying degrees of success and seriousness, in many of the former Soviet republics, from Armenia and Moldova to Kazakhstan, with former communist party schools and institutions being converted, with some connivance from the state and private capital (and foreign advice), into public service academies and universities intended to form the future governing elites of these countries.

Can Kiev project strategic-constitutional legitimacy across the entire territory of a state the coherence of which, in identity terms, is not yet affirmed, and the material well-being of which remains unimpressive and vulnerable? Or will the country – along with Belarus, the most ethnically, linguistically and psychologically close state to Russia – reduce to a strategic cripple, buffeted between larger powers and perhaps even seeking refuge with one of these (most likely Russia)?

So democracy is not the project in Ukraine. It is competence to govern. Viktor Yanukovytch, the current president, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister, are not respectively autocrat and democrat – far from it. The same can be said, grosso modo, for former president Viktor Yushchenko, of Orange Revolution fame. All are members of a transitional generation of rulers who still largely embody Soviet political values, Soviet administrative and patronage methods, and a still-Soviet mentality. They face the same governing choices, and come with teams that are hardly differentiable in their world views – pragmatic, hard-nosed, nervous. They are all, however, nationalists (proud Ukrainians, that is): all, including Yanukovych, are EU-leaning, but perfectly cold-blooded about the significance of Russia – geopolitically, economically, culturally and psychically. Indeed, an apocryphal story has a high-ranking official in Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration (cabinet office) recounting a recent meeting between Yanukovych and Putin. Asked how it went, he explained: “They went their way, and we went ours.”

A clean break from Russia is not recommended. It is not only strategic madness (even Russian military action against Ukraine is not excluded in such a scenario), but strategically and psychically near-impossible: the imaginaries of the major cities, from Kiev to Odessa, and Dniepropetrovsk to Kharkov, remain largely Russian. But if a break from Russia is not wise, then a pivot toward Europe is commendable. The recently initialled EU-Ukraine Association Agreement suggests that Kiev is properly on its way in this regard. Moscow will apply a contrary pressure, as is its wont. Kiev will have to resist without losing the relationship – all the while inching toward Brussels and European respectability. In other words, it will have to dance for its life.

As I wrote in GB’s Winter 2013 issue, the post-Soviet space is, along with the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, in full voyeuristic mode as its capitals study the best practices from what may be termed Western ‘rule by argument’ and also the increasingly influential Sinophilic ‘rule by algorithm.’ If they are smart, the emerging class of post-Soviet leaders will be maximally promiscuous – adopting best practices with little regard to ideology and erstwhile notions of good versus evil. They will seek their legitimacy not in pure democracy as legitimated by Western observers (see the Orange Revolution debacle of a decade ago), but likely in some species of hybrid governance – the specifics of which are yet to be divined – that combines the outcomes-oriented, algorithmic technocracy of the East and the stabilizing decentralization (and federalism) and rights culture – that is, argument – of the West. The algorithmic paradigm will give them their new-century expert and planning class, and they will need to slowly but surely delegate political and administrative power away from the ‘vertical’ in order to have enough information and ‘argument’ (from the people) to properly plan, and enough buy-in to execute plans on the ground.

In some sense, then, what happens in the former Soviet space and in these other voyeur theatres will tell us what state governance will look like in our time. And so the Soviet model, which continues its slow disentanglement, cannot be discarded outright: rather, the new post-Soviet leaders will, in order to be successful, have to be, Janus-like, at once quasi-Soviet and quasi-modern. They will have to reach backward in order to bring their countries forward, shrewdly assimilating the lessons of other transitional success stories in order to advance their purposes.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Sara Tyson)

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