All you need to know about democracy and ex-USSR countries
Some societies in the former Soviet bloc managed to build functioning democracies, but others didn't; why it happened has lessons for the West too.
After several months of silence, this newsletter comes back. After a stressful period where I got surgery, a certain project put me under Olympic-level pressure, and I had to relocate to a new home in Brussels, I can assure you that the worst is gone and that it is now time to go back to data journalism and commit back to a project, DaNumbers, that helped me salvage my career in a very delicate moment of my life in general.
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In the meanwhile, apart from apologizing for missing several issues, I want to say thank you for the feedback I received for the last episode of this publication; the feedback I got means that there is much work to do in the field, not just in analyzing and visualizing data, but also in questioning and fact-checking them.
BRUSSELS – In the aftermath of February 24, an Italian leftist wrote on Facebook: “Do you seriously believe that common citizens matter when there is a regime change?” Even though this writer is no longer on Facebook, this newsletter answers this question with a clear yes.
To do so, we studied the countries of the Former Soviet Union, trying to measure why some of them became democracies and some didn’t. After 500 lines of code, DaNumbers can prove that societies are the ultimate judge of the fate of their nations, provided that they can give themselves solid (yet flexible) institutions. The following sections will study how variables like corruption, political intimidation, or even creativity in children can give information on the democratic path of countries, with a special focus on the ex-USSR republics.
Making sense of the ex-USSR mess
Is there a relationship between corruption and the concentration of power? The following chart answers.
Here, DaNumbers visualized how Presidentialism and Corruption change over time using the latest edition of the V-Dem dataset. By Presidentialism, the Gothenburg (Sweden)-based scholars mean the concentration of power on a single person from zero to one (one is the highest possible level of concentration. Corruption displays, from zero to one, how corrupt a country is according to the panel of experts the V-Dem Institute surveys every year.
The takeaways are multiple: in countries like Moldova, the level of presidentialism collapses in parallel with corruption. The same happens in Armenia and Georgia, whereas other former Soviet states display contradictory trends. Ukraine confirms the generalizations of these charts, but it proves that things are not always so linear. All over the rest of the Former Soviet Union, corruption and presidentialism go hand in hand.
Once hailed as the success story of democratization in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is now back into a spiral of corruption and democratic backsliding. The chart above, actually, asks more questions than it answers. Of course, once citizens decide, their countries can become democracies, but what are the conditions for it to happen? A partial answer comes from the following chart.
This chart is the result of a factor analysis of some V-Dem indicators. Factor analysis is a statistical tool that helps determine how variables relate among themselves in a dataset. This is not the first time DaNumbers used it. However, it is interesting because, in this case, we identified two factors: Law and peace on the vertical axis and Pluralism and civic freedoms on the horizontal axis.
The black curved line encompassing the four quadrants of the chart guides us towards the different 179 cases we display. On the top-left corner, we have regimes like the Gulf monarchies, North Korea, and China. Most Western democracies are in the top-right quadrant, whereas the most exciting things happen at the bottom of the chart, where most non-Baltic FSU countries lie.
Most of the so-called hybrid regimes (Electoral autocracies and a few Closed autocracies) are unstable because they introduce elections, and elections must be won somehow. This element of instability is terrible because it forces society to live in limbo – often a violent one. But on the other hand, it offers opportunities: Order and peace are low, but the variance of Pluralism civic freedoms is high, ranging between minus two and zero.
Ukraine is quite close to the center of the chart, proving that it was on the right path before February 24. The quadrant of “Fragile regimes” shows how countries that decide to give themselves a lot of civic freedoms then need to reinforce their institutions. It is not by accident that Georgia and Armenia are there.
Following the black curve from its beginning, we can hypothesize that countries coming from autocracy can pass through a period of instability. Once they achieve a sufficient degree of freedom, they need to stabilize their institutions. If they fail to do so, they end up being as fragile as other autocracies.
Most countries labeled as ‘Unstable’ from afar look like very strong regimes: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and even Russia are rock-solid on the surface. Yet, they survive on weak ground based on widespread corruption and sketchy networks of loyal people in the right key positions.
We will not get into the details of the so-called ‘patronal politics’ (this book by Henry Hale provides a very good idea of how these regimes work). Still, DaNumbers can offer a chart that explains exactly the point outlined in the previous paragraphs.
Here we see the loadings for the two factors we described above. Here, we are trying to visualize how the different indicators interact with each other and become the factors in the previous chart. Indicators like Election government intimidation and Physical violence work upside down: the higher, the less intimidation or violence. In general, the idea is that higher scores approach the most desirable situation.
In the chart, we can see how corruption and presidentialism conspire against both pluralism and order. One could hypothesize that corruption and presidentialism introduce a level of arbitrariness that is negative for the democratic development of a country. In fact, electoral intimidation (or the lack of it) is very important for an orderly and peaceful country.
The problem is that, per se, the V-Dem indicators (and their elaboration) can’t help much in solving the problem of democracy in the Former Soviet Union. What we did not consider so far is the institutional setting of countries. On the surface, all the Former Soviet Republics are a republic. Still, the different arrangements between presidents and prime ministers (even Russia has a PM, after all) make them presidencies or parliamentary regimes.
This British literature review offers a short glimpse into the debate around presidential and semi-presidential systems, but for the sake of clarity, DaNumbers tried to define presidential regimes as those where the chief executive is the Prime Minister and relying on sources like the CIA World Factbook. This research yielded the following chart.
Here, we see the effect of the transition toward a parliamentary regime by Former Soviet Union countries, bar Kyrgyzstan. The chart above highlights that two years after the transition toward presidential regimes, the level of democracy rises significantly. The Baltics were particularly successful in that, but other countries like Armenia and Georgia prove that institutional settings are important to foster democracy.
The explanation is that by changing the source of legitimation of the chief executive and taking it away from electors, countries build a system where the chief executive (now a prime minister) does not serve for a limited term, and its job is constantly under scrutiny by a parliament that can oust it whenever the assembly wants.
Although this introduces an element of inherent instability (Italy, Israel, pre-De Gaulle France, and, most recently, the U.K. prove it), on the other hand, parliamentary systems are theoretically more resilient than presidential counterparts. At the end of the day, Berlusconi was kicked out of office in 2011, whereas Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro (presidents of the U.S and Brazil, both presidential regimes with a very similar constitution) could end his presidency relatively undisturbed.
Problems, though, happen when even parliamentary regimes collapse. This was, unfortunately, the case in Kyrgyzstan. The tiny and poor Central Asian republic got a parliamentary constitution after the rule by Askar Akayev. Mr. Akayev ruled the country between 1990 and 2005. He rigged elections and was ousted by one of the many color revolutions that blossomed in the area during the mid-00s. The tragic spiral of Kyrgyzstan is enshrined here.
In 2011, after a complex six-year transition, the country adopted a parliamentary system. Parliamentarism lasted only 10 years. The chart displays how institutional changes affect the level of democracy, with the last two years of a new presidential regime sentencing the failure of what was once considered a success story in an unlikely area.
Why did it fail? The reasons are complex, but at a macro-level, it is likely that Central Asian countries still feel the influence of a political culture based upon power pyramids that originate with leaders who hierarchically wage power.
Kyrgyzstan poses problems from a theoretical point of view because, among other things, it is also a Muslim country, and, at the end of the day, institutions need societies to operate, if anything, to receive legitimacy.
One of the most abused stereotypes in political science is that countries with a majority of Muslims have more difficulty developing a democracy. This is not just the thesis of Samuel Huntington. Jan Teorell, too, one of the greatest living political scientists, argued a similar thesis in his foundational ‘Determinants of Democracy” book. The following chart seems to prove that Islam might be detrimental per se against democracy.
Here we see a fundamental divide in the ex-Soviet space: European countries, including Russia, tend to be Christian, -stan countries from the Caucasus and Central Asia are Muslim. The chart does not consider the different denominations of Christianity or Islam. For example, the Armenian Church has fundamental theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox churches, not to mention Roman Catholics and Lutherans from the Baltics.
Islam, though, in the area is a peculiar beast. Although it had been a strong identity factor for the area since the pre-Soviet colonization, in general, in society, religious beliefs are less important than one might argue. The following chart helps elaborate on that.
Here we have the results of a Principal Component Analysis. This analysis uses data from the World Value Survey. The WVS is a massive public opinion poll that interviews people worldwide with questions about their beliefs. For these questions, the WVS dataset had data for circa 60 countries, including part of the Former Soviet Union.
The Principal Component Analysis is a different animal from the factor analysis. In the words of ChatGPT: “[as a metaphor], the original data set is like the landscape that the photographer wants to capture, and each variable in the data set is like a lens capturing a different aspect of the scene. The principal components are like the photographer's final, simplified image, representing the most important features of the data set.”
Here, DaNumbers selected answers to questions that prove how open societies are politically and in social terms. The intriguing information from this chart is that more socially open countries tend to have stricter ethical standards (accepting welfare benefits despite not being entitled), and, crucially, they consider creativity important. Countries, where respondents considered creativity an important trait for children, tend to be more socially open. How does that translate in practice? The following chart answers.
Here, the two principal components DaNumbers identified are put on a continuum between closed and open societies. Although this is not an orthodox way to visualize a PCA, it allows us to explain our point better.
To be democratic, a society must have social and political openness: Western democracies are all at the right of the center. Also, political openness is not necessarily openness to democracy. Autocratic countries with relatively high political openness, like Kazakhstan or Russia, are socially close. The same applies to Kyrgyzstan. Armenia is an exception, being politically open but very little in social terms.
Despite that, we have some missing countries from the sample (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, and the Baltics), the chart proves that democracy needs roots in the society. The data from the Principal Component Analysis prove that to have a democracy, at the very least, societies must value freedom and creativity, which explains, among other things, why freedom of expression and the fairness of elections are so important in democracies.
Speaking of the electoral process, the second chart of this section showed that, in political openness, it is important that people trust elections. This might lead us to think that, in some societies, being ruled by an autocrat is a perfectly legitimized thing. Although disheartening, this conclusion leads straight to the end of this newsletter.
The bottom line
The series of charts in the previous section has shown that the Former Soviet Union is no longer a homogeneous area. Although, particularly in Central Asia, democracy seems to be difficult to obtain, elsewhere, the democratization process is proceeding. Of course, it is not easy and it is full of contradictions but, on the other hand, it poses questions to the rest of the world, particularly in the West.
The first is that institutions are important. In particular, playing with the institutional setting trying to transition from parliamentarian systems could harm democracy. The second is that freedom and creativity are important. Democracy does not die in the darkness, democracy dies when diversity and creativity are not valued, but most importantly, democracy flourishes when societies decide so.
The first chart of this story showed that very well: the moment countries took the problem of corruption seriously, the concentration of power declined. This is not about the corruption of high officials or cabinet members: here, we are talking about giving a bribe to lift a parking ticket. In other words, democracy starts when Maria from Chișinău decides not to bring a bottle of spirits to have her baby jump the queue at the pediatrician and make a fuss about it. This might be a populistic claim, but the second chart in the third section shows exactly that.
The data shown so far also prove how important is the neighborhood policy by the EU. Although it is quantitatively different to measure the work done in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltics (the latter now members of the EU), it is plausible that the work of European Institutions also helped the progress of democracy in the area.
Ukraine might not have been the most successful country in transition, but, given the work done in the last years, it surely deserves a chance. We, in the West, should be extremely careful: data have shown how important it is to have an inclusive society in terms of democracy. In this aspect, messages from Italy, part of the U.S., and other countries are chilling reminders that democracy must not be taken for granted.
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