Book Review: La democratizzazione tradita


Roberto Di Quirico, La democratizzazione tradita. Regimi ibridi e autoritarismi nei paesi ex-sovietici europei (Bologna, Italy: il Mulino, 2013). 336 pp., €26,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788815245502.

In the last ten years, democratization studies have gained relevance among Italian political scientists. The volume by Roberto Di Quirico on the failure of democratization in a group of former USSR European countries is a welcome addition to what amounts to a significant national contribution to this popular field of investigation. In his book, the author illustrates the results of regime change in five former USSR European countries, namely Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire. In the first place, Di Quirico points out the shortcomings and weaknesses of explanations of democratization processes based on the “transitology” approach: the preconditions that would favor democratization according to this interpretation, as well as negotiations and compromises among major actors, have been absent in this area. The approach of the “first democratic instauration” is also inadequate, due to the relevant differences of historical and social contexts and the unwarranted application of a specific “Western” experience to a diverse setting. For the author, the key lies instead in the model of “permanent hybrid regimes,” where both the passage to democracy and a full authoritarian involution are equally barred (p. 265). This is the best way to identify the political regimes that have taken root in the countries under investigation. These regimes should not be understood simply as an indefinite deviation from a path leading to democratization, but rather as an autonomous regime-form, reached through an original trajectory, which has been well-defined and unique since the beginning. In short, past legacies and more recent processes converge to determine unambiguously and immediately the expected result of a “permanent hybrid regime” (Ibid.).

After discussing the main theories in the field, and describing the processes following the authoritarian fall, Di Quirico analyzes the interaction between politics and economic reform, so as to explain how the formation of a market economy had an impact on the processes of transition from Soviet rule and, specifically, the chances of democratization. One of the most intriguing contributions of the book is the analysis of the social differentiation that followed the various attempts at marketization and their consequences on the electoral bases of new parties, both in terms of geographical influence and ideological stance (p. 121). The existence and relative strength of oligarchs, firm directors and managers (in the industrial or rural sectors), the middle class, the working class, peasants and pensioners have determined the form and character of political reforms. For instance, industrial firm managers would be the main beneficiaries of the privatization of the public industry. In Belarus, however, these managers are less important than in Russia or Ukraine, since a relevant part of the leading political elite has been drawn from rural farm directors, a category to which Lukašėnka himself once belonged. As a consequence, in this country industrial firm managers have been unable to favor a more benign political outcome.

A series of chapters is devoted to the role in helping democratization of institutional features, civil society and external actors. The fragility of parliaments and political parties, but especially the weakness of civil society and democratic political culture, account for the failure of the democratization efforts in the area. In short, without democrats, it is difficult to build a working democracy. In addition, not only is democratic participation weak, but a new form of political participation, deriving directly from the participatory structure of the Soviet period, is taking hold. In Russia, for instance, the function of civil society (the reference is to the Nashi association and to Obshchestvennaia palata) is to channel from below the demands of the population, so that a consensus is formed in which the state supports or mediates social issues and struggles without resorting to electoral accountability. In addition, the state limits inter-institutional accountability to technical and economic questions that do not imply challenging the existing power structure (p. 222). Lastly, the “double periphery” status of these countries (they are at the same time a periphery of Europe and the Russian federation) renders them potentially vulnerable to the influence of a series of external actors, especially Russia and the European Union. The latest events (even discounting the recent dramatic problems in Ukraine) suggest an expansion of Russian influence, with its authoritarian implications, also by means of its specific political model, centered around super-presidential executive powers (p. 251). The EU, on the other hand, has not been able to play a relevant role, since it does not plan to admit new members in the area and thus cannot use the active leverage instruments, based on political conditionality, that have reached significant results in other eastern European cases. The scarce interest in new investments by European countries does not help either. The author, however, foresees ways in which the EU may unfold its influence, especially if the aims to be reached are realistically modest, by way of an economically passive leverage which reflects the dependence of these countries from much-needed external funding.

In short, the volume by Di Quirico is an interesting contribution to the ongoing study of post-authoritarian transitions in former USSR European countries. The book is highly readable. It develops a punctual historical analysis of the complex events taking place in the countries under study; it offers a comprehensive theoretical synthesis of the debates concerning democratization and marketization; it provides an illuminating discussion of the social bases born of the new economic organization of these societies, of their political inclinations and democratic outlook; and it engages in a healthy comparative exercise of political analysis on these issues. Lastly, the author submits an original theoretical intuition regarding the “permanent hybrid regimes” of the area. The book, in addition, raises a series of questions and issues that warrant further research and reflection. A first note concerns the choice of cases. The rather pessimistic conclusions that are finally submitted may, in part, be the result of the failed selection of countries that fall under the umbrella of “former USSR European countries,” such as the Baltic republics, where the outcome of post-authoritarian transitions have come closest to a democratic result. In this sense, the author’s observation that their exclusion depends on their specificities should be clarified, given the importance of the matter (p. 36). A second point concerns the above-mentioned definition of “permanent hybrid regimes,” which would uniquely identify the recent political experience of the countries under study. While the author claims the relevance and originality of this theoretical insight, too little is said regarding what exactly the characteristics of this contribution are and how this concept is different from those suggested by other authors (p. 265). The explanation that these regimes are born from a “process” activated after the fall of the authoritarian regimes, which prevents a full democratization and since the beginning suggests the instauration of a permanent hybrid regime, is insufficient and more details should be offered to readers to substantiate the argument. One is left with the impression that, after laying to rest democratic teleology, the argument recurs to the teleology of hybrid regimes in its place.

In conclusion, we recommend the book by Di Quirico as a serious, informative and scientifically valid contribution to the growing field of democratization in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet countries, which can be fruitfully read by students of this area and by all those interested in processes of transitions from authoritarian regimes.

Davide Grassi, University of Turin

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