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Where is Eastern Europe heading?

A review of Eastern Europe since 1989. Between Loosened Authoritarianism and unconsolidated democracy. By: Mykola Riabchuk. Publisher, Studium Europy Wschodniej, Warsaw University, Warsaw, 2020.

September 12, 2021 - Maryana Prokop - Books and ReviewsIssue 5 2021Magazine

The political map of Europe changed substantially in late 1980s and early 90s. This change was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new, independent states. These changes resulted in a notable diversification between these states. It may seem that each of the former Soviet republics had a similar starting point and opportunity for shaping its own statehood. Yet the fate of these states took very different courses. First, the transformation processes in many of these states led to the liberalisation and democratisation of authoritarian regimes. However, it soon turned out that not all these states could be clearly defined as democratic or authoritarian. This contributed to the emergence of some kind of dualism, as some states often showed features of both democracy and authoritarianism. This phenomenon has been described in many different ways, including the category of hybrid regimes.

The new book by Mykola Riabchuk, a Ukrainian public intellectual and member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board, titled Eastern Europe since 1989. Between Loosened Authoritarianism and Unconsolidated Democracy, is an attempt to answer where Eastern Europe is heading. Naturally, there is no clear answer to this question despite its popularity among researchers. One reason is the heterogeneity of the various states and the social, economic, historic, geopolitical factors that have a strong impact on the processes taking place within them. Therefore, the book, which emphasises the diversity and uniqueness of the region, seems to be the most honest response to this query.

Fuzzy ambivalent zone

Interestingly, Riabchuk’s book does not offer a chronological account the developments on the post-Soviet space. The author concentrates on the most important elements of some key phenomena. As a result, the different chapters guide readers through the history, the theoretical and methodological foundations of the research, and presents case studies. The first chapter “What’s in a Name? Eastern Europe as Historical Phenomenon and Discursive Construction” puts forward an excellent background of the historical events that determine the current shape of Europe. It presents the specific national characteristics of the eastern parts of Europe from the perspective of “philosophic geography”.

Riabchuk also stresses the multifaceted diversity of the region which also implies its division. He describes it as a “fuzzy ambivalent zone that contributed to the general ambiguity of all divides”. He mentions the division between Catholic and Orthodox Europe and highlights the political division that has become a relevant issue in interstate relations and the legitimacy of East and West. He considers the “economic differentiation – that cuts Europe roughly from Danzig / Gdańsk in the north to Trieste in the south” to be no less an important element of Europe’s diversity. This is explained by significant differences in the intensity of economic and demographic developments which took place in Western Europe but not in its Eastern parts. Based on these assumptions, the author comes to a straightforward conclusion that the specific characteristics of Eastern Europe have been determined by a long and complicated process of the post-communist transformation and Russia’s influence in the region.

The second chapter includes an analysis of the short- and long-term consequences of the collapse of the communist system and the Soviet Union. Here Riabchuk describes the mechanisms that led to change of the political system in the late 1980s. Yet, in his view “captive nations were not ready to adopt the ‘gift’ received from Mikhail Gorbachev, who in his public speeches indicated that ‘each socialistic state has a right to follow its own trajectory without external interference’”. The author then argues it was rather this “renouncement of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ that established the limit of sovereignty for Soviet bloc nations”. Therefore, despite the opportunity they received in the late 1980s and early 1990s, not all countries of the communist bloc succeeded in building stable democracies. To think of those that did not we should consider Belarus, Russia and Azerbaijan – which are often described as consolidated autocracies – while Armenia and Kyrgyzstan are unconsolidated authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Albania still function as hybrid regimes.

Hybrid regime and aborted transition

The third chapter contains theoretical and methodological reflections on the democratisation process. Riabchuk refers to Samuel Huntington’s theory of three waves of democratisation, ways of measuring degree of democracy and the importance of transition paradigms in the context of research on hybrid regimes. Of interest is his analysis of hybrid regimes and the transition into a “grey zone” taking place in Eastern Europe. This part of the book also offers an interesting take on the perception of political regimes that try to combine democracy and authoritarianism. These systems have been assigned numerous names in political commentary: “feckless democracy”, “grey zones,” “feckless pluralism” and “imitative democracy”.

The next two chapters offer the analysis of the systemic transition processes that took place in Ukraine and Russia. The choice of case studies is important in the context of the region. Ukraine is a country that has exhibited both democratic and non-democratic practices in its transformation years. The most recent history of the political system resembles a sinusoid, which we can see when it tries to combine the preservation of electoral authoritarianism and striving for genuine democracy. Despite its revolutionary path towards democracy (i.e. the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014), Ukraine is still considered as a hybrid regime. Russia, on the other hand, is an example of a state characterised by regression towards authoritarian consolidation. By using the term “aborted transition”, Riabchuk emphasises that “Russia’s failed democratic transition looks like a belch of communism and imperialism in a world lukewarm to both”.

The most interesting chapter is the one titled “The Future of Europe, Future of Democracy”. It presents Eastern Europe in statu nascendi and analyses the challenges faced by its surroundings, including the European Union. Three decades of systemic transition have clearly led to radical political, social and economic changes. Moreover, as Riabchuk notes, it is important for societies to have “a deep understanding that neither ‘Europe’ nor ‘democracy’ are millenarian objects but, rather, projects-in-the-making that require daily commitment and diligent work”. This awareness could help us understand the direction Eastern Europe is headed towards – as a whole or in particular states.

No doubt, the quality of this book comes from the author’s comprehensive approach to the specific characteristics of different states in Eastern Europe. Riabchuk presents an excellent theoretical background and thorough account of the origins of the phenomena. It is worth mentioning that each of the seven chapters includes a recommended reading list which will be useful for those who want to explore some of the discussed areas in more detail. While this is an academic book, each of the chapters is still very accessible reading. This makes Riabchuk’s book not only a text for researchers and scholars, but also an enjoyable and interesting read for anyone interested in Eastern European affairs.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Maryana Prokop is an assistant professor at the Institute of International Relations and Public Policy, at the Jan Kochanowski University in Kielce. She specialising in the political systems of Eastern Europe, theory of hybrid regimes and international relations in the post-Soviet space.

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