The post-communist region is an artificial entity. Its countries are united by their common recent history of a particular form of authoritarian regime and little else. This peculiarity of the region, however, makes it favorable terrain for investigating questions that interest social scientists.
One of those questions is which factors condition whether or not countries get popular rule. As Eurasia and Eastern Europe neared the end of the 1980s, all countries were ruled by hegemonic Communist Party organizations. There were shades of difference in the degree of political closure among countries, but all were hardcore autocracies. Over the next several decades, however, the region witnessed the emergence of virtually the entire spectrum of regimes, from full-blown democracy (as in Poland and Estonia) to harshest autocracy (as in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). For the scholar interested in what shapes prospects for democracy, the region presents a relatively uniform starting point followed by the emergence of extraordinary variation on the outcome of interest. The independent variables of interest differ widely within the region as well.
Investigation of data on democracy and its correlates in the postcommunist region provides substantial support for structural theories of political regime. Four big background conditions, none of which are the products of human volition and all of which undergo within-country change very slowly or not at all, explain the bulk of variation in outcomes on political regime. Economic development, income from oil production, geographical location, and religious tradition do a good job of predicting cross-national differences.
Still, structure is not fate. Factors other than the big background conditions examined here might shape outcomes. Constitutional arrangements and leadership, each of which is the product of human design and neither of which may be considered a background condition, might have mattered as well.
The investigation presented in this chapter has many limitations. As always, the quality of cross-national, observational data cannot be regarded as high. The statistical operations presented here are rudimentary and aimed at highlighting big correlations; they do not enable us confidently to make causal inferences. What is more, large-N analysis such as that offered here cannot substitute for in-depth studies of a single case or a small number of cases.
What the analyses presented here can do is clear some brush and highlight potentially productive areas and questions for inquiry. The cases that deviate strongly from expectations might be especially useful. They might serve as “crucial deviant cases,” which some scholars regard as particularly helpful for generating novel theories. How has poor, geographically isolated Mongolia fared so well in democratization? Mongolia is the only predominantly Buddhist society in the region, so we cannot assess the effect of its religious tradition with any confidence, but moving out of region and examining how aspects of Buddhist culture might affect political regime could present a fruitful avenue for research. Perhaps factors that have little to do with economic, geographical, or cultural conditions have safeguarded Mongolia’s democratization and will continue to do so.
Is Mongolia’s parliament-heavy semipresidential system key to its success? Is extraordinary leadership to credit? Or perhaps a lot of luck? If Mongolia has been running mostly on luck, it is possible that structural limitations will catch up with it. As the country’s reliance on energy resources extracted from the ground grows, will Mongolians be able to maintain open politics? Might they experience something like the spiral of corruption and consequent disillusionment with democracy that afflicted Russia in the 1990s, with similar results for political regime? Or can Mongolia continue to beat the odds?
Bulgaria’s much-better-than-predicted performance raises similar questions. How has Bulgaria overcome its relative economic underdevelopment, location at some distance from the West, and Orthodox Christian tradition? Is its constitutional system, with its muscular parliament and relatively underpowered presidency, to credit? Is just not having oil, combined with its institutions that confine the executive, enough? Or is something else at work? In-depth country studies might turn up chains of causation that could generate insights that would be relevant outside the region.
Including such cases in small-N, multiregional designs could be especially fruitful. Once the analyst has a handle on how Mongolia or Bulgaria has done it, extending the analysis to other relatively poor democracies could be a productive next step. Mongolia, Ghana, Indonesia, and El Salvador, for example, each rank in the bottom half of the world’s countries in terms of economic development; GDP per capita does not exceed about $4000 in any of them. What enables democracy to thrive on ten dollars a day in these places but not in most other less developed countries?