Peculiarities of Political Modernization in Post-Soviet Societies


As a result of describing any state or society, revealing the tendencies of development and transformations, as well as the nature and regularities of socio-political processes we fix the peculiarities of the value system in the given society, which condition the political regime, the principles and mechanisms of state’s functioning. The major criteria of the efficacy of the political system’s functioning are the following: the level of social welfare and social-political freedom, the nature of the relations between different social groups and the authorities, as well as the level of social participation in the process of electing and changing the authorities. In general, the existence and absence of the mentioned criteria are viewed in the light of political regime (whether democracy or authoritarianism).

Historical experience shows the most trustworthy and preferable way of organizing the state and conducting power is democracy which enables to realize those factors. As U. Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

And now, when discussing the problems of development, democratization and political modernization are specially emphasized.

The nature of political modernization

According to the definition of Edward Shils, political modernization is the process of transformation from the traditional state to the modern one, which is based on the democratization of the society and political system, since the changes of political structure and political culture can occur only in those cases when democratic values are predominant.

In the mid – 70-s of the XX century in many regions of the world a wave of the downfall of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes launched which was characterized as the third wave of democratization by Samuel Huntington, one of the greatest representatives of the theory of modernization. It was launched in Southern Europe, when the military dictatorships of Portugal, Spain and Greece collapsed. Then the wave spread to Latin America, some countries of South-Eastern Asia, as well as the Soviet Union. In the latter one of the politics of Perestroika brought about the collapse of soviet totalitarian system.

The processes of political modernization have often been developed in a non-natural way, as in case of Soviet Union. The reason for this was the fact that democratic institutions of the West were inserted mechanically in such transient societies which fell short of socio-economic, socio-political, value-ideological prerequisites which were necessary for the formation of democratic institutions. And the experience showed that such implementation of the process not only fails to result in the endorsement of democracy, but also paves the way for transformation from one regime to another, and mainly leads to socio-political and political crisis. Such process is accepted to be called “running modernization”.

One may conclude that the process of modernization can bring about social and political instability if realized improperly, because mechanically inserted models are incompatible with the normative traditional system and characteristics of the society.

Post-soviet modernization

In case of the experience of the post-soviet countries’ modernization the above-mentioned argument is much more visible.

In some countries democratic institutions are formed and enhanced, the process of political modernization thrives, while in others such institutions and practices go with non-democratic, authoritarian or official (formal) democratic procedures and are used as a cover for new forms of autocratic governance. According to the report of Freedom House in 2017, a prominent American non-governmental organization, 7 post-soviet countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan) belong to the category of non-free countries, 5 (Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) are semi-free, and only 3 Baltic countries are considered free. As we can see, there are three main layers among countries with common historical past, which should be connected with the national-ethnic, social-cultural peculiarities which somehow boosted or imped the formation of liberal values. Among them especially the protection of people and citizens’ basic rights and freedoms, the chances of political self-expression and the existence of free competitive relations play a pivotal role in the process of developing democracy.

In general, it is inappropriate to put the modernization of post-soviet countries, and for example, Southern European, Latin American ones in the same platform. The major reason in post-soviet countries is the transition from the one social order and value system to the opposite ones, which makes the process more complicated and controversial.

In the soviet socialistic system there was a total control in all the spheres of social life, political freedoms and the chances of expressing their will were excluded, the whole property and economic complexes were nationalized, planned economies were held, as a result of which there was no competition in the sphere of economy. Capitalist economy is based on the fully opposite principles: there is a free market economic system, the activities of which are not suppressed by the state, which is entitled to some limited regulatory functions in order to ensure the stability and viability of the system.

As we see, the nature and the principles of two economic systems are extremely different, accordingly it is understandable, that in order to transmit from one system to another prerequisites boosting the formation of capitalist relations are needed, without which the process resembles cosmetic changes, so everything would remain the same.

Studying the experience of post-soviet countries’ modernization it becomes obvious that the above-mentioned conditions have not been implemented, and the steps towards the transition to capitalism were initiated without making the process mature or forming appropriate environment. In this case the transitory processes from authoritarianism to democracy differ from the experience of other countries.

First: The main peculiarity of the post-soviet modernization was the fact that there was an attempt to develop free market economy and pluralist democracy simultaneously. It is a common fact that politics and economy are intertwined and conditioned by each other, because both of them function in the same regularity in terms of systematic principles, so free economic relations serve the liberalization of the political life, the formation of democratic values and conversely, they can boost the liberalization of economy and the development of competitive relations. The  policy of Gorbachev perestroika in the mid 1980-s, which made provisions for implementing radical changes in broad social structures, political and economic systems in order to solve many social-economic and other problems, did not reach targeted goals. The reason for this was the fact that the changes were conducted in a society, which was formed in the atmosphere of total control and the psychology of its activity was based on strict centralism and the relations of submission, so it was non-realistic and inappropriate to drastically liberalize the whole system. As an aftermath, radical economic changes resulted in the decline of living standards, which in its turn, brought about sharp tensions and complaints in myriad social groups, as well as political instability, in case of which it becomes difficult to create judicial and institutional bases for the implementation of economic reforms.

Second: One of the significant features of post-soviet region was the ethnic heterogeneity, which could increase the level of conflict between different ethnic groups and pave the way for the expansion of nationalistic attitudes. It was conditioned by the fact that the ethnic distribution was not taken into consideration during the formation of the USSR, conversely, there were conducted deliberate territorial divisions violating the borders of the coexistence of different ethnic groups, which undoubtedly would give rise to controversies.

The centralized totalitarian authority of the soviet period, as well as the favorable socio-economic conditions preserved stability among different ethnic groups, however the deep crisis in the last years of the soviet period and the processes conditioned by it (which eventually led to the collapse of the USSR) boosted the emergence of decades old deterred and frozen problems. The main reason for the ethnic controversies was the tension of relations between ethnoses constituting minorities in different republics, when the dominant ethnos was suppressing the minority and exerting serious threats to their functioning.  Namely, conditioned by the complex of hatred, intolerance and nationalism, society is fragmented in ethnic criteria, which divides and decentralizes the society impeding the formation of civil society.

One of the obvious examples are Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, because the suppressions and ethnic cleanses against the small-numbered population of Nagorno-Karabakh (included deliberately to the territory of Azerbaijan) rose into war, and now keep their wartime dynamics in the ground of/ national hatred.

Third, the next important peculiarity is connected with civil society. Democratic values constituting the core of civil society, presuppose the organization of social-political life with liberal principles, when some autonomous social and political units are established. It is worth mentioning that civil society assumes not only the existence of autonomous units, but also the ability of their functioning. There were serious obstacles for the formation of civil society in post-soviet countries. One of these important obstacles was the fact that even though the transition from on social order to another was implemented through liberal ideas and visions, on the basis of their practical implementation were decades-old norms and values which the members of transforming society have. It is not possible to implement an uneven transition from one social order to another via the ideas on the new social order and the will of realizing it, if those subjects who implement the given process carry inherited and stereotyped values and principles. This problem refers equally both to the elite and social masses.

The governing elites of the post-soviet societies consisted of people who were born and brought up in the authoritarian society, and they did not witness the application of any democratic principle, democratic culture and practice, and even though they formally preserve some democratic procedures and norms, in reality they stick to the tactics and instruments inherited from the previous system. So the members of the authoritarian society cannot form democratic social order drastically, without gradual development. According to Brzezinski, the proper activity of the democratic institutions and the formation of appropriate political culture can last for 15 or many years, but if we take into account the fact, that the problem in the post-soviet countries was not only political, but also social-political changes, the process of modernization is more complicated and long-lasting.

Summing up the above mentioned approaches, one may note that the main obstacle to the political modernization of post-soviet societies was the principle of implementation, e.g. “running modernization”, as well as the broad spectrum of transformation, when it was necessary to conduct simultaneously both the formation of democratic values and development of market economy. As a result of such developments the decline of living standard and low availability of resources, the disappointment and complaints bring about protesting subjects. The activities of the latter result in the following developments: non-tolerant reaction, which is expressed via the restriction of democratic freedoms by the authorities, as well as the formation of authoritarian political regime.

Relying on the approaches advanced in the given analysis, we are going to make an attempt to clarify the peculiarities of the political modernization in post-soviet Armenia, as well as the nature of political processes and the tendencies of political system’s evolution.

Author: Hayk Sahakyan: © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Khachik Makyan.



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