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The Nature of Regime Change

Crucial in the structuring of regime development was the constellation of forces at work in the process of the fall of the USSR (for longer treatments see Bremmer & Taras 1997; Dawisha & Parrott 1997a, b; Gill 2002; Smith 1999). While this has been called a ‘revolution from above’ (Hahn 2002), the situation was actually much more complex, with different models of regime change occurring in different of the constituent Soviet republics. There were four such models:

  • 1. Popular forces drive regime change, establishing a dominant position in the legislature and consolidate their rule. This occurred in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
  • 2. Popular forces drive regime change, but are unable to consolidate their power and are displaced or forced to share power, or succumb to caesarist proclivities of the leader. This was evident in Moldova, Georgia and Armenia.
  • 3. Elite domination, with power shared by a mixture of old regime elites and new people, and popular forces do not play a big part in the process. Cases of this are Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
  • 4. Old regime forces retain power largely because of the suppression of autonomous political forces in the years of perestroika. In Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, such control was largely unchallenged, but a significant challenge had to be overcome in Tajikistan, Belarus and Azerbaijan.

The three countries in Model 1 were those classified as democracies as per Table 3.1 while the six countries in Model 4 were classed as non-democracies (‘not free’) either all or most of the time covered by the table. The countries in Model 2 are classed as partly free throughout along with Ukraine in Model 3, while the others in Model 3 (Russia and Kyrgyzstan) are mainly partly free but with one entry under not free. Models 1 and 4 countries are clear in the matching of path of regime change with subsequent regime trajectory, while those in models 2 and 3 are more mixed and ambiguous. How do we explain these different patterns?

Model 1

In the Baltic states, the course of regime change was driven directly by the Popular Front movements that had emerged in 1988. These were the best organized and ideologically most focused of the popular front movements to emerge in the USSR at this time. In both Latvia and Lithuania, they gained parliamentary majorities in the 1990 republican elections while in Estonia they had a majority with the support of reformist communists. The strength of these movements provoked a split within the ruling republican communist parties with reformist elements going over to the nationalist side, with the result that when the coup occurred in Moscow in 1991, the local political scene was dominated by those favouring the replacement of Soviet power and rooted primarily in the social movements and the parliaments they controlled. They then went about creating a multiparty democracy, with limited opposition from old regime elements.

The drive to consolidate democracy was fuelled by the desire of these elites to integrate with ‘Europe’, seen in terms of gaining entry to the EU. This aspiration was in turn fuelled by the encouragement and support they were given from within the EU, where the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR in 1940 had been seen as a grievous historical injustice (reflected in the refusal of many Western states formally to acknowledge that these countries were part of the USSR) that needed to be set right. The desire to gain EU entry was behind the subsequent moderation of the initial discriminatory citizenship policies in Estonia and Latvia that had clearly discriminated against the local ethnic Russian populations and that was the chiefreason these countries had been marked as only partly free in 1992.

The decisive factor in the trajectories ofthe Baltic states is that the political process was dominated by elites who were closely linked to the Popular Front social movements and were committed to relatively open, democratic politics, even if this was combined with a tendency to place barriers in the way of full-scale participation by the ethnic Russian population. Entry to the EU provided further buffers for the sustenance ofa democratic system, while those who might have wanted a more authoritarian set of arrangements (and may have looked to Russia for support) were weak and clearly outnumbered in the respective political systems. This was a direct result of the way perestroika (1985-1991) unfolded in these countries.

Model 4

These were the polar opposites of the countries in Model 1. In the six countries in this model, the sorts of popular forces that had been so strong in the Baltic states during perestroika were very weak. Not only had there been little organized mobilization from below during perestroika, but in each of these countries the authorities had set out consciously to hamper such a development. Organizers were harassed, meetings broken up, publications seized or prevented from appearing, organizations refused registration and elections rigged, such that opposition forces could mount little real challenge to the existing authorities. In Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, the ruling party did not split and either simply changed its name or continued to operate as the leader’s personal machine, and the party first secretary became president of the new republic. In Tajikistan, the party leader at the time of the 1991 coup (Kahar Makhkamov) was removed from office because of his support for that coup and was replaced by the person who had been party leader until removed in 1985 (Rakhmon Nabiev). Nabiev immediately cracked down on his opponents. However, Nabiev was forced to resign in 1994 in the face of civil disturbances and was ultimately replaced by former communist leader Emomali Rakhmon (originally his name was Rakhmonov) who sought to consolidate his position based on a communist successor party and exclusionary policies. The country continued to be wracked by civil war until late in the decade when Rakhmon was able to consolidate his position. The important point about this is that despite the threats to the rule of successive leaders, the civil conflict did not lead to the destruction of the old ruling apparatus which was able to survive and continue to sustain Rakhmon in power, nor did it generate effective civil society organizations.

In Belarus during perestroika, the communist authorities had kept a tight rein on the development of autonomous social forces, with the result that the most important of these, the Popular Front of Belarus (PFB), won only about 7% of the seats in the legislature in the 1990 election. The communist party hierarchy was split between reform and old-style communists, and this enabled the PFB leader Stanislau Shushkevich to effectively become the leader of the republic. However, he could do little in the face of conservative elements within the parliament and bureaucracy, and in early 1994 he lost office. In what was seen as a free and fair election, in the middle of 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenka was elected president and proceeded to consolidate authoritarian rule. Thus, in Belarus, popular forces had had some success only because of a temporary split in the ranks of their conservative opponents, and when this was repaired, those elements were able to shut out the effect of those seeking a more democratic form of rule. In Azerbaijan too opposition forces were too weak to be able to challenge the old regime forces whose aggressive use of the advantages of incumbency and the instruments of the state ensured their dominance. The communist party and its leader, Ayaz Mutalibov, appeared secure in power at the end of 1991, but the outbreak of fighting with Armenia over the outstanding issue of Nagorno- Karabakh destabilized elite politics, leading to the fall of old regime representatives and the temporary emergence into political prominence of the leader of the Azeri Popular Front (Abulfez Elchibey). However, Elchibey was overthrown in a coup in mid-1993, and former member of the Soviet party’s Politburo, Heidar Aliev became the leader of the republic. He then cracked down on all opposition and consolidated authoritarian rule.

In all of these countries, the strength of old regime forces was sufficient to enable them to consolidate themselves in power, even if in three cases this was after a struggle. In all cases, popular forces were much weaker than those of the old regime, and were excluded from power. The result was authoritarian regimes which, in the eyes of many, were comparable to the Soviet forebear from which they had sprung. The key element was the closure of politics early in the new state’s life. Furthermore, this could not be offset by democratizing influences from the West. Geography was part of this, with most of these countries not situated close to the West like the Baltics were, although this was less true of Belarus, and the US was able to project its power into the region through the establishment of an airbase in Central Asia to help prosecute the war against Al Qaida. But more important was the fact that these regimes consciously worked to ensure that such influence did not seep over their borders. These regimes took steps to keep civil society under strict control, and thereby stifled the principal channel through which potential democratizing influence could flow. The drive of regime elites to build an authoritarian polity allied to the weakness of domestic opposition and the authorities’ ability to limit Western influence combined to consolidate authoritarian rule in these countries.

Model 2

If in Model 4, popular, anti-regime forces played little role in the transfer of power, in the countries in Model 2 they were central to this process. However, they were unable to build and consolidate a democratic regime. In Moldova, the Moldovan Popular Front (MPF) won a majority in the 1990 republican election; sidelined the old-style communist party; and supported a reformist communist, Mircea Snegur, as chair of the Supreme Soviet. The developing pro-independence stance of the government generated irredentist sentiments among the ethnic Russian population of the Transdnistr region, which, with the declaration of Moldovan independence and along with the Gagauz region, rejected the authority of the Moldovan government, leading to armed conflict. The basis of that government was also less secure because of the split between those who supported full Moldovan independence and those wishing reunification with Rumania. Following Snegur’s election as president in December 1991, the ruling authorities split as Snegur and the MPF parted ways over a variety of policy questions, including the future trajectory of Moldova—independence/Rumania and presiden- tial/parliamentary system. Snegur now turned for support to the old- regime communists, and leading members from the former ruling Politburo joined him in the leading offices of state. The elections in early 1994 placed the successor party to the former communist party in power. Thus, the initial oppositionist elite fragmented, leaving the way open for the successor party to gain power, but without excluding opposition forces from the political scene. This correlation of forces is reflected in Moldova’s consistent rating as much more democratic than most of its former Soviet neighbours.

In Georgia, the opposition forces that had come together under the Round Table banner won about 60% of the parliamentary seats in the October- November 1990 election and its representative, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, won the presidency in May 1991. However, Gamsakhurdia’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour and his attempt to consolidate power in his hands personally led to a split in the new government. Armed clashes at the end of 1991 to early 1992 forced Gamsakhurdia to flee and led to the creation of a provisional government from among the opposition forces. However, their ability to consolidate power was hindered by the continuation of armed conflict with pro-Gamsakhurdia forces and independence movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At the centre, a struggle between the parliament and the new president, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, broke out, but over time Shevardnadze was able to strengthen the presidency and his own personal power. Thus, the initial oppositionist regime fractured and opened the way for the return to power of a former member of the communist power structure.

Armenian politics, like that of Georgia, was overshadowed by armed conflict, in this case with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The initial government was led by the popular front Pan-Armenian National Movement (PANM), whose representative Levon Ter-Petrossian was elected president in October 1991. Despite some tensions between parliament and president in 1992, the situation remained stable until 19931994 when popular unrest developed in the capital over economic policy and the performance of the government. The PANM split and Ter- Petrossian suspended the main opposition party. When elections were held in 1995, against a background of complaints about Ter-Petrossian’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour - including the banning of a number of opposition parties - the president’s party won, but in an election that was deemed to be not fair. When Ter-Petrossian won the presidential election in 1996, widespread opposition demonstrations were suppressed by force. Ter-Petrossian held on to power until a split among his supporters led him to resign in February 1998. So although the popular movement that gained power at the time of the Soviet collapse remained in control, it became dominated by its leader who took on authoritarian powers.

So unlike in Model 1 where popular movements gained power and were able to consolidate a democratic structure, in Model 2 states the popular movements split and, in the cases of Moldova and Georgia, this opened the way for elements of the old regime to return to power, while in Armenia it facilitated the personal dominance of the leader. In all three cases, at this stage, the countries remained resistant to attempts from the West to influence the course of developments. Indeed, in all three cases, influences from Russia that were not supportive of democratization may have been more significant.

Model 3

If popular forces were central to regime change in Model 2 countries, they were of little importance in Model 3 countries, where the principal dynamic of political development emanated from within the elites. In Russia at the time of the fall of the USSR, both the parliament and the presidency were occupied mainly by figures from the old regime structures, although in the case of the presidency (and part of the parliament) these had forsaken their old regime affiliations and adopted a reformist stance. However, conflict soon broke out between the president and parliament, with the former resolving this in 1993 through the use of force. Boris Yeltsin then used the electoral process in an attempt to consolidate himself in power, something that failed because although he won the subsequent presidential election, opposition forces effectively won the parliamentary polls of 1993 and 1996. The stand-off between the president and parliament, combined with Yeltsin’s attempt to gather power into his own hands, meant that during the initial decade, he sought successfully to marginalize the parliament and the popular forces that should have been able to use this institution to play a significant role in public life. Elite politics remained strained throughout the 1990s, and was only consolidated following Vladimir Putin’s accession to the presidency in 2000, after which the authoritarian trends evident under Yeltsin gathered pace (Gill 2015).

In Ukraine, the emergence of a popular movement, Rukh, which was able to gain over a quarter of the seats in the parliament in the March 1990 election, led to a split within the ruling communist party between those sympathetic to opposition calls for independence and those wishing to remain part of the USSR. With the collapse of the coup in Moscow in August 1991, the reformist Leonid Kravchuk left the communist party, declared Ukrainian independence, and in December he was elected president. Kravchuk rested upon an alliance of reformed ex-communists (attracted in part by his refusal to follow Russia down the path of economic shock therapy) and nationalist democrats from Rukh, attracted by his support for independence and tough line with Russia on a series of issues. Despite tension between the president and parliament, elite politics was relatively stable. However, party development, and therefore the channel through which popular forces would be expected to exert themselves, remained retarded; in the parliamentary election in 1994, the overwhelming majority of candidates returned were independents, while the ethnic divide that was to dominate subsequent Ukrainian electoral politics was already evident and significantly hindered national party development. At the presidential election in 1994, Kravchuk was defeated by another former communist official Leonid Kuchma, whose election brought on a dispute with the parliament over whether the regime should be presidential or parliamentary. Kuchma won this struggle and a new more presidential constitution was introduced. The precedent of the replacement of the president through the electoral process was now set and continued to operate in Ukrainian politics, but so too did the fact of party weakness. So in Ukraine, the main drive of political development in the first decade ofindependence emanated from an alliance of former communists and nationalists, with the former the more influential, while civil society forces remained fragmented.

In Kyrgyzstan, there were no social movements that could have a significant effect upon the course of politics at the time of the collapse of the USSR. In the February 1990 election, nearly all seats were filled by communists associated with the ruling party. The presidency was filled by Askar Akaev, who was a former head of the Academy of Sciences. A dispute between the president and parliament over the distribution of power was initially resolved peacefully, but the two bodies were soon in conflict over the course of reform. The conservative parliament acted as a break on the president in his quest to introduce economic and political change. Akaev sought to go over the head of the parliament, making a series of appeals to the people for support, and ultimately he was able to bring about a new parliamentary election in February 1995. In the election, most seats were won by government officials, clan leaders and intellectuals, with political parties playing almost no role. This did not bring about a reconciliation between Akaev and the parliament, and the former proceeded to take a series of steps designed to strengthen the presidency and consolidate his grip on it. Thus in Kyrgyzstan, the weakness of opposition forces enabled successor elements of the old regime to maintain powerful positions within the political structure and shape the course of development.

Each of these countries in Model 3 remained relatively open to Western influences, although these seem to have had few effects. However, as the colour revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 show, such influence had greater effect after the initial period of independence.

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