July 28, 2009

The Curse of the FSU

Sometimes I really think that the former Soviet Union (henceforth, FSU) casted a curse on its former republics. There are only three decent countries out of 15 FSU republics. I mean the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) which are EU members. Honestly, it was not a big surprise that the Baltic States had a very smooth and fast transition from socialism to capitalism and from autocracy to democracy. The Soviets always referred to the Baltic trinity as to Europe. If you wanted to see Europe, you would go to Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania. Those countries were always different.

What about the rest of FSU? The Central Asian FSU countries are typical examples of the oriental despotism. Kazakhstan allows for a relative economic freedom in the export-oriented sectors (oil and gas) of the economy while other individual liberties are extremely limited. President Nazarbaev did not really embrace the notion of the democracy and remained in power since the collapse of the FSU. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are just weird countries. Tajikistan is always on the edge of becoming a failed state. The Caucasus group is more appealing than the Central Asian group. While Azerbaijan follows the Kazakhstani model, Armenia and Georgia are OK. Armenia is highly acclaimed for the well-done land reform. Georgia was doing fine after the Rose Revolution but the war conflict with Russia undermined its democratic transition.

Finally, let's take a look at the European group of the FSU countries: Russia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. The Polity Score that measures the level of political freedom (e.g. 0 denotes absolute autocracy and 20 denotes consolidated democracy) was 16.36 for Ukraine and 9.22 for the rest of the FSU countries (Polity IV, 2009). Ukraine's political environment has significantly improved since the breakaway from the FSU. Ukraine is one of the freest countries in the FSU region (Freedom House, 2009). Ukraine is free as it has never been before. Ordinary Ukrainians enjoy a higher level of political and economic freedom than their FSU's neighbors in Belarus, Moldova and Russia. While all four countries started with the same level of freedom, they moved in different directions. Belarus and Russia slipped into autocracy. Moldova whose GDP per capita is half of Ukraine's level has the communist government and the very weak rule of law.

So what is going on with most FSU countries? There are so few democratic and capitalist countries among the FSU states. Is it just a path dependence that most FSU countries cannot overcome? If I were a superstitious person, I would say that it could be the curse of the FSU. But I say that we need to dig deeper in the cultures of these countries. I think that the culture can explain why the FSU states have followed the different transition paths.

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