By John C. Stanko, PhD student, Political Science
The Soviet Union’s rapid dissolution caught many observers and practitioners off guard, including within the USSR itself. The reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-to-late-1980s were intended to reinvigorate, not undermine, the Soviet system, but they ultimately proved fatal to the Union. Dima Kortukov, in his recent talk, Political Change in Ordered Societies: Elections and the End of the USSR, discussed why Gorbachev chose to introduce multi-candidate elections, and why other authoritarian states continue to do so today. In short, the goal was to use low-level electoral competition to increase officials’ accountability to the local populace, thereby improving efficiency, bolstering support for the government, and ultimately strengthening the regime.
The question then becomes how such elections might contribute to a regime’s collapse rather than rejuvenation. Indeed, Kortukov notes that multi-candidate (if not always multi-party) electoral authoritarianism is the most common form of authoritarian governance in the contemporary world. If even local elections present such an existential threat to a major power like the Soviet Union, it may seem unwise for other, less powerful regimes to adopt the tactic. However, Kortukov points out three widely cited potential reasons for doing so, namely as a means of sharing power among competing elites, of enhancing control over the citizenry, and of garnering some measure of international legitimacy in a pro-democracy world order. Seeing shortcomings with these extant explanations in the Soviet context, Kortukov adds his own proposal, authoritarian elections as an attempt to improve the effectiveness of governance mechanisms, before outlining specific factors in the Soviet case that precluded the success of such a reform as a strategy for reinvigorating the government.
As someone with an interest in authoritarian politics and so-called “hybrid” regimes, this aspect of the talk was particularly noteworthy. Given how authoritarian governments are often lumped together in Western discourse, it is easy to forget just how much variation exists across the world. Simply adopting a policy measure, such as limited elections, that worked in one state does not guarantee the outcome of adopting it in a different context elsewhere. Exploring how policies were implemented and critically questioning why they failed or succeeded is an important task, and I applaud Kortukov for spending time on this point.
As to the failure in the Soviet context, Kortukov argues that Gorbachev recognized the problems facing the Soviet Union but underestimated their severity. While the USSR suffered from ineffective governance, marked by a corrupt bureaucracy, limited oversight ability, and an inability to recognize and fix mistakes in a timely manner, the nature of the Soviet state and Gorbachev’s policies paved the way for fragmentation rather than re-centralization. Recognizing the need for support from the regional leaders of the USSR, Gorbachev offered them more autonomy in exchange for being held more accountable through elections. Ultimately, though, making regional leaders answerable to their local populaces often forced them to choose between satisfying the regional residents and adhering to Moscow’s orders. Exacerbating this issue was the fact that the reforms granted the various Soviet republics enough room to act independently of, and therefore to resist, the Kremlin, eventually leading to internal tensions and the dismemberment of the Union at the end of 1991.
Kortukov’s work is important in that it not only addresses gaps in the existing scholarship on Gorbachev’s reforms and their outcomes, but also speaks to both scholarship on reform policies (often driven by a desire to remedy inefficiencies) in those authoritarian regimes that exist today as well as to contemporary international relations issues in Eastern Europe. (The legacy of the unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union has been seen in a wide-ranging series of territorial disputes in the region, for example.) Despite the approach of the 30th anniversary of the demise of the Soviet Union, Dima Kortukov has shown that studying the how and why of its startling unraveling remains very much a relevant source of insight not just for scholars of history, but also for scholars interested in the world as it is configured in the here and now.