by Dima Kortukov, PhD student in Political Science
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In my dissertation research, I explore the unraveling of the Soviet Union, focusing especially on electoral politics. On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as President and Commander-in-Chief of the USSR; a few days after, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Why did the Soviet Union fall apart so rapidly and unexpectedly? Scholars of history and political science struggle to answer this question. The dissolution of the world’s largest state (at the time) is not merely a reminder of scholars’ limited ability to predict or explain the breakdown of authoritarian regimes. Almost thirty years later, this fateful event still occupies the imagination of both ordinary citizens and politicians in the post-Soviet space and beyond.
Another round of the debate on this “million-ruble question” was recently reignited by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking in November 2019, he argued that the collapse of the USSR had little to do with the growth of nationalism in the Baltic countries. Instead, according to the Russian leader, this dramatic outcome resulted from inefficient economic policy in the USSR. A few days later came a rejoinder from the first president of independent Ukraine. According to Leonid Kravchuk, the economic policy was just one of many problems that eventually destroyed the Soviet Union. Kravchuk argued that the USSR was an artificial entity, where republics with different histories, mentalities, and cultures were held together by the force of oppression. Eventually, the different peoples understood that their national interests could be better served by an independent nation-state. Lastly, Fyodor Biryukov, a representative of the nationalistic Motherland party (Russia) offered a somewhat different perspective. According to Biryukov, the USSR collapsed as a result of ” the ideological degeneration, professional degradation and betrayal of the Soviet ruling elite.” Economic crisis, virulent nationalism, and resulting state collapse were all consequences of leadership betrayal.
The statements of Putin, Kravchuk, and Biryukov reflect the variety of opinions of the general post-Soviet public regarding the causes of Soviet collapse. They are also indicative of the scholarly consensus. Existing academic accounts of the USSR collapse highlight factors such as nationalist mobilization, economic crisis, Soviet institutional design, and elite interactions. These explanations are accurate and sound, but not fully convincing; I argue that an important piece of the puzzle is missing. Specifically, scholars have thus far failed to grasp the true meaning of Gorbachev’s political reforms due to the lack of attention to developments in the electoral and legislative arenas. In order to better understand the Soviet case, I look to new literature on authoritarian regimes. This scholarship views an election as a double-edged sword. On one hand, elections are generally beneficial for authoritarian leaders: they can ensure victories by means that include harassment of the opposition, arbitrary enforcement of rules, and electoral fraud. However, even unfair elections are not entirely risk-free and may result in liberalizing outcomes or even regime collapse. This is especially likely when electoral institutions create opportunities for elite defection and anti-regime voter mobilization.
In my research, I raise a different set of questions about the USSR dissolution and the failure of social scientists to anticipate it. How did Gorbachev’s reforms undermine the Communist monopoly over access to political power? Why were new institutions created by these reforms unable to coopt elites in support of the goals? How did these changes vary across the USSR republics, creating different capacities to challenge Moscow? In order to answer these questions, I have conducted interviews and archival research during two rounds of fieldwork in Russia (supported by RSW). My analysis confirms theoretical expectations regarding the destabilizing effects of perestroika politics. Throughout his reforms, Gorbachev hoped to improve the quality of decision-making and to increase the legitimacy of Soviet rule, while ensuring regime control over electoral outcomes. However, the creation of new legislative institutions and the introduction of limited electoral competition generated splits within the Soviet elites and showed the limits of support for Gorbachev’s policies. The reform’s expansion to the USSR’s republics enabled unprecedented electoral competition, allowing nationalist sentiments to receive political expression and led to the destruction of the Soviet federal system, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR.
Insights from this research allow one to make sense of the demise of the core USSR institutions: the Communist party, the Soviet and the federal structure. But this finding is important beyond the Soviet Union. In numerous cases, such as in the Philippines (1986), Chile (1988), and Algeria (2019), the introduction of electoral competition led to the autocrats’ demise, paving the way for democratization. On the other hand, in contemporary Iran, Russia, and Turkey, electoral institutions are a crucial pillar of authoritarian stability. My research allows to make sense of this divergent outcomes, thus improving our ability to correctly assess the potential for change within contemporary authoritarian regimes.