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Transitions from postcommunism
Michael McFaul
Journal of Democracy, Volume 16, Number 3
July 2005

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The collapse of communism did not lead smoothly or quickly to the consolidation of liberal democracy in Europe and the former Soviet Union. At the time of regime change, from 1989 into the first few years of the 1990s, popular democratic movements in the three Baltic states, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, eastern Germany, and western Czechoslovakia translated initial electoral victories into consolidated liberal democracy. These quick and successful democratic breakthroughs were the exception, however. Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and eastern Czechoslovakia (after 1992 known simply as Slovakia) failed to consolidate liberal democracy soon after communism collapsed. Yet in time, the gravitational force of the European Union did much to draw these countries onto a democratic path.

Farther from Western Europe, however, there was no such strong prodemocratic pull. Full-blown dictatorships entrenched themselves early across most of Central Asia and, after its 1994 presidential election, in Belarus. Semi-autocracies and partial democracies spread across the rest of the ex-Soviet states, including Russia. By the end of the 1990s, further democratic gains in the region seemed unlikely.

Starting in the year 2000, however, democracy gained new dynamism in the region in unexpected ways and places. In October of that year, Serbian democratic forces ousted dictator Slobodan Miloševiæ. Three years later, Georgia's far less odious but still semi-autocratic president Eduard Shevardnadze fell before a mobilization of democratic forces. The following year, in a similar drama but on a much grander stage, Ukrainian democrats toppled the handpicked successor of corrupt outgoing president Leonid Kuchma.

The Serbian, Georgian, and Ukrainian cases of democratic breakthrough resemble one another-and differ from other democratic transitions or revolutions-in four critical respects. First, in all three cases, the spark for regime change was a fraudulent national election, not a war, an economic crisis, a split between ruling elites, an external shock or international factor, or the death of a dictator. Second, the democratic challengers deployed extraconstitutional means solely to defend the existing, democratic constitution rather than to achieve a fundamental rewriting of the rules of the political game. Third, each country for a time witnessed challengers and incumbents making competing and simultaneous claims to hold sovereign authority-one of the hallmarks of a revolutionary situation. Fourth, all of these revolutionary situations ended without mass violence. The challengers often consciously embraced nonviolence on principle, using occasionally extraconstitutional but almost always peaceful tactics. The failing incumbents do seem to have tried coercive methods including assaults on journalists and opposition candidates and the closing of media outlets. But no incumbents dared to call on military or other state-security forces to repress protest.

Another remarkable thing about these democratic breakthroughs is how few analysts predicted them. To many it seemed a miracle that Serbian democratic forces could overcome a decade of disunity in order first to beat Miloševiæ in a presidential election on 24 September 2000, and then to galvanize hundreds of thousands of citizens to demand that the actual election result be honored when it became clear that Miloševiæ was trying to falsify it. Similarly dramatic events unfolded in Georgia after Shevardnadze tried to steal the November 2003 parliamentary elections, leading to his resignation as president and a landslide victory for opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili in a hastily scheduled January 2004 balloting. While many anticipated controversy over Ukraine's autumn 2004 presidential election, most observers still expected that Kuchma would find a way to make his chosen successor, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's next president. Not even opposition leaders predicted the scale and duration of the street protests, which would break out after the government tried to claim that Yanukovich had won the November runoff against Viktor Yushchenko of the prodemocratic "Our Ukraine" coalition.

Identifying the common factors that contributed to success in these cases may be our best method of predicting future democratic breakthroughs not only in this region but perhaps in others as well. Deploying John Stuart Mill's "method of similarity"-which holds that in order to be considered necessary to the causation of a certain effect, a variable must be present be in every case-we can assemble a list of commonalities that unite Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004 as cases of successful democratic breakthrough.

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