The post-communist experience also raises the possibility that leadership is of great importance in regime outcomes. The notion that leadership can influence trajectories of regime change, or for that matter outcomes in any other realm, has been declasse in Anglophone social science for decades. Leadership cannot be quantified and is not readily tractable to cross-national analysis, but it is not less significant for that reason (Samuels 2003). While the influence of Boris Yeltsin’s occupation of the Russian presidency at the time of the Soviet collapse cannot be calculated, it may have been substantial. The effect of Yeltsin’s successor on regime outcomes has probably been even greater. Had Yeltsin chosen someone other than Putin as his intended successor at the end of the previous century, Russia might look different today. Democracy was already on the ropes at the end of the Yeltsin era, but the reversion to hard autocracy in the current century might not have happened at all, or might have taken a different form. The role of the individual leader in retreat from democracy is evident in neighboring Belarus as well. The country’s turn away from open politics in the mid-1990s and subsequent drop into a neo-Soviet deep freeze is tied closely to the personality of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Hungary’s retreat from full-blown democracy over the past several years is hard to imagine without reference to the toxic talents of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The significance of leadership is evident in economic as well as political reform and change. Estonia’s emergence as the region’s leader in economic-institutional development owes a great deal to the extraordinary leadership of Mart Laar, who first took charge as prime minister in 1992, at the age of 32. Laar’s unyielding ideological commitment to imposing hard budget constraints on enterprises across the board had the effect of cutting off budding political capitalists and opening Estonia’s economic arena to genuine entrepreneurs. Most countries in the post-communist region have experienced the emergence of political capitalism, a system in which fortunes are built on access to state coffers and privileges bestowed by political authorities rather than on business acumen per se. Laar, who pursued his policies even when they were unpopular and even at the cost of losing power 2 years later, helped make Estonia the post-communist region’s greatest economic success story and least corrupt polity (Abrams and Fish 2015).