Two Cheers for Stagnation: Institutional Development and Democracy in Ukraine and Russia

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"It is more or less fair to say that Russia under President Putin leans toward authoritarianism, and Ukraine under President Yushchenko leans toward democracy," said Alexander Motyl, Deputy Director, Center for Global Change and Governance, and Professor, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark, at a 26 September 2005 lecture at the Kennan Institute. "This is a puzzle, because, according to conventional wisdom, Ukraine has been stagnant for the last fifteen years. Why does it seem to be democratic? Alternatively, Russia has been embroiled in massive transformation. Why hasn't it become democratic?"

"My answer," continued Motyl, "is that Ukraine has achieved some level of democratic institutionalization precisely because it has been stagnant." That stagnation has provided space for the development of democratic institutions, which he identified as patterns of behavior that are valued and viewed as legitimate by society. Motyl took issue with the concept of "institution building" often employed in describing reform goals in the former Soviet Union. He argued that this term implies that institutions are like skyscrapers built from the ground up. Instead, the reconstruction of Times Square in New York, where rebuilding is taking place as millions continue to use and move through the area, is a more accurate model. "Rebuilding is a deeply complex process that takes time," said Motyl. New, or rebuilt, institutions come into effect only as a result of collective action through repetition and eventual acceptance. "Indeed, institution building is really institution rebuilding."

Rebuilding institutions for democracy requires introducing and sustaining "formal democracy," according to Motyl, incuding citizen participation in recognized elections, contentious voting and debate in parliament, and the creation of policy through a process that is widely recognized. Ideally, the result is a better society and effective governance. But, contended Motyl, even if the choice of candidates in elections is poor, even if parliament is rancorous, and even if policymaking is largely ineffectual, so long as the process continues and rules of the game are accepted, then institutions are successfully being rebuilt. It takes time, Motyl emphasized, but this kind of stagnation can lead to eventual progress.

As an example of a successful outcome in rebuilding institutions, Motyl pointed to the example of Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary. Their successful transition to market democracies was the culmination of a long, incremental process of internal reform originating in the 1950s. "By the late 1980s these countries were sufficiently un-Soviet that their transformation seemed more major than was the case," stated Motyl.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unrealistic hope was that Russia and Ukraine would quickly transform into democratic societies with market economies. Motyl contended that Russia and Ukraine instead followed different trajectories in the development of their institutions over the past fifteen years. In Russia, with its tumultuous transformations, the result is an administration that acts without regards to rules, or changes the rules to suit its interests. In Ukraine, long considered politically and economically stagnant, the result has been a society where even during the presidential election crisis in 2004 all sides played according to certain rules in the pursuit of their interests. The current government shakeup in Ukraine is now unfolding as another positive example of functioning democratic institutions within that country.

Russia experienced big changes every few years since the fall of the Soviet Union, beginning with the 1993 disbanding and shelling of the Russian parliament. Since that crisis, Motyl noted, many reforms and state policies in Russia have been enacted by decree rather than through legislation. This history, Motyl argued, has led to weak institutions and has ultimately made it easier for the Putin administration to concentrate power and to marginalize other competing sources of influence within Russian society.

By contrast, Motyl continued, while there have been attempts to subvert democracy within Ukraine since independence, the political actors have, for the most part, adhered to certain rules. Reforms in Ukraine may have stalled as a result, and policy may have been ineffectual for years, but habits were formed among political actors and society that eventually allowed the Orange Revolution to play out as it did. It remains to be seen whether the myths developed from the Orange Revolution will help further consolidate democratic norms. If they do, Motyl suggested, one should expect to see the steady "Orange-ification" of the opposition. They should become more enmeshed in the political processes in Ukraine and continue to pursue their interests according to Ukraine's rules of the game.

Motyl commented that this model of institutional development in Russia and Ukraine has implications for the relationship between marketization and democratization. It indicates that there may be trade-offs between the two, whereas in the 1990s many experts believed that no trade-off between the two would be necessary.

"The good news for Russia," Motyl said in conclusion, "is Putin's system is really slated for stagnation, and that is the solution to Russia's problems. Stagnation may not lead to regime transformation in the next year, or in 2008. But in the long run, Putin's system is on its way out."

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