Prerequisites for Democracy, or Did Belarus Ever Have a Chance?

Prerequisites for Democracy, or Did Belarus Ever Have a Chance?

To all appearances, the frequent attempts of the Belarusian authorities to make their point that “Belarus is not ready for democracy” are not just a way to secure ideological legitimization, but also a sincere belief of a significant part of the country’s political class. This idea is close to a revised version of the modernization theory: it is only when the “right” system of values and interests emerges in society that a successful transition to capitalism and democracy will be possible.

An alternative idea – “Lukashenka is the one to blame for Belarusian autocracy” – tends to neglect the role of structural preconditions, sticking to the ‘deus-ex-Machina’ role of the Belarusian president. He descended to the political field in 1994 and distorted the course of the country’s political life.
So, was Belarus really unprepared for democracy in the early 1990s, and is the Belarusian political trajectory really an anomaly? Having analyzed the predestination of the Belarus of the early 1990s to democracy from the point of view of the seven most authoritative democratization theories, we can draw the following conclusions:
First, six of the seven key democratization theories predicted a very likely autocracy for Belarus, and only the theory exploring the influence of the constitutional design on the political outcomes of transformation has it that Belarus could have prevented the slide towards autocracy. Furthermore, factors such as the “level of human development” and absence of ethnic and national conflicts could also be regarded as positive factors when it comes to the prospects for building democratic institutions.
Second, the lack of sufficient structural prerequisites for democratization does not mean that Belarus was “cursed” by history itself and doomed to autocracy. Predestination does not mean inevitability. Take Mongolia, which, despite even less favorable starting points and absence of any predisposition to democracy, managed to build a consolidated democracy (Fish, 1998). Finally, prerequisites are not always determinants. Democracy is often a result of conflicts and stalemate, rather than an outcome of development, unity, consensus and good will (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986, 72). Democracy doesn’t really require democrats; it results from a situation, where of all the groups competing for power there is no single group having sufficient resources to suppress its opponents.
In other words, quoting Benjamin Franklin, “democracy is an agreement about rules of behavior between well-armed gentlemen,” i.e. democracy cannot be established from the top-down or the other way round; it arises spontaneously from negotiations (Przeworski, 1991) and is a byproduct of the struggle for power.

Political outcomes of the post-socialist transformation in comparative perspective
Before turning to the analysis of factors, we need to clearly visualize the map of political transformation of the post-socialist space. It is to a great extent unique: having similar starting positions, these countries chose various transformation paths, and, having gone through a variety of unstable political regimes (hybrid regimes) mostly settled in the democratic and autocratic “clubs” by 2012.


  Democracies Hybrid regimes Autocracies
1996 Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
2012 Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia Albania, Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

As early as 1994, Belarus left the “club” of hybrid political regimes and, in the wake of the 1996 referendum, evolved into a “consolidated autocracy” (Silitsky, 1999). Russia joined this club in 2004. Furthermore, none of the post-Soviet republics, with an exception of the Baltic trio, made it into the democratic camp. Ukraine was the closest one after the orange revolution, yet it only stood at the door mat of democracies, but never made it into this category and then started shifting towards autocracy.

Which factors contributed to these countries’ eventually finding themselves in the different political clubs and what were the starting points for Belarus?

1. Low level of socioeconomic modernization

The author of the modernization theory of democracy Seymour Martin Lipset argued that countries with higher per-capita GDP have a better chance of eventually establishing stable, effective, and legitimate democratic regimes, because economic growth is assumed to induce a chain of developmental factors: better education, more intense communications, and appearance of the middle class and civil society – the watchdogs of democracy.

The scholars of the so-called neo-modernization approach Limongi and Przeworski analyzed the connection between the level of economic development and democracy and argued that democracy could be realized at any level of economic welfare, yet they believed that the probability that a democracy would collapse in a country with GDP per capita above $4,000 was minimal.

Applying Jørgen Møller’s calculations and making adjustments according to the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar, we assume that $6,236 (of GDP per capita in PPP) is the threshold, beyond which autocracy is virtually impossible. Applying this threshold to the post-communist setting (average in 1989-1991), we can draw a conclusion that from the point of view of the modernization theory, Belarus (alongside Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) was doomed to favor autocracy, whereas Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine were all above the $6,236 threshold, and were therefore destined to success, according to Limongi and Przeworski.

2. Low level of mobilization (national aspect)

Some scholars (Kuzio, 2007; Bunce, 1995; Motyl, 2001; Kuzio, 1998; Marples, 1999; Silitski, 2005) hypothesized that the strength and direction of national identity, as well as the parameters of the national movements and national leaders could be a significant democratization factor at the beginning of transition.

First, anti-communist mobilization was supposed to encourage the demand for independence and European future (EU as a means to break away from Russia).

Second, the leaders of national movements were chosen by history to fight the communist nomenklatura, rather than the other way round. In their opinion, one of the main justifications for the Belarusian authoritarian transformation was the low level of Belarusianization and the “special” national identity of the Belarusians.

I deliberately keep away from the language and cultural issues, as well as strategies of the national movements. I should restrict myself to the sufficiently objective indicator of Mark Beissinger’s database (2002) Number of Mass Demonstrations concerning nationalistic issues between 1987 and 1992, which demonstrates a relatively low level of the engagement of Belarusian citizens (as well as Ukrainians) in rallies and protests. A conclusion can be drawn here that Belarus had no prerequisites for democracy as far as mass mobilization based on national movements/discourses is concerned.

3. “Bad” historical legacy

In the opinion of a large group of scholars (Linz and Stepan, 1996; Ekiert and Hanson, 2003; Bunce, 1999, 1999; Kitschelt, 1999), historical legacy is a powerful determinant of the direction of institutional change in the post-communist period. Herbert Kitschelt repacked both pre-communist and communist development aspects into a specific set of variables and distinguished between certain types of communism that prevailed in the former Soviet bloc: 1) bureaucratic authoritarian, 2) national accommodative, 3) patrimonial communist and 4) colonial periphery. These regimes diverged in terms of their pre-Soviet history, formal bureaucratization of the state apparatus and methods to induce party authority during the Soviet times. Out of these regimes, two, namely, bureaucratic-authoritarian and national accommodative, favor democracy, while the other two, patrimonial communism and colonial periphery, favor autocracy.

As far as historical legacy is concerned, Kitschelt believes that only the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia had historical legacies favorable for democracies, whereas the remaining 16 countries of the region, including Belarus, had historical legacies that obstructed democratization.

4. Lack of the European perspective

The theory of external influences, specifically, the EU, on the democratization of the post-Soviet space, are basically quite similar; therefore, the most illustrative one should be cited as an example. According to Milada Anna Vachudova (2005), the EU is a strong gravitational force capable of pulling countries in the direction of democratic capitalism, even if non-liberal regimes are the starting points. Democratization has often been a result of the EU’s policy of conditionality, import of best practices, return to European values and approximation of legislations at the closing stages. To make it easier to operationalize this idea, we’ll group the countries depending on whether they had the perspective of the EU membership or not. Belarus, along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, had no EU membership perspective and remained out of the reach of democratic gravitation, hence no “blessing” for democratic transition.

5. Low level of communist displacement at the first elections

Steven Fish (1998), while recognizing the properties and the results of the first elections as an antecedent to economic reforms, argued that albeit the outcome of the initial elections is rather random (not depending on prerequisites), it determines further development of political and economic institutions.

In other words, the single best indicator of the quality of the future reforms in consideration of the 26 post-communist countries is which new elites are brought to power at the first elections. In following Fish, Kitschelt (1999) re-analyzed his hypothesis statistically and confirmed the significance of the victory of anti-communist forces at the first post-communist elections and the establishment of political and civil rights and freedoms in that process.

In consideration of this, we use Steven Fish’s (1999) score of communist displacement at the founding elections as the easiest strategy. Belarus, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Romania, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan are included in the group of countries with the minimal displacement of communists at the 1989 elections. In accordance with the political competition theory, this prevented democratization. The remaining 13 countries of the post-Soviet bloc were “doomed” to succeed by the displacement of the incumbents at the first elections.

6. Economic distortions

Many scholars, including Greskovits (2004), point to the influence of the initial level of economic legacy on the post-Soviet political trajectory. The higher the level of structural economic distortions, the more complicated the transformation, because the “distorted” economies will be characterized by a higher political cost of reforms and presence of powerful rent-seeking groups (for example, “red directors”). Nørgaard (2000) argued that the index of economic distortions included: monopoly (the share of very large centrally managed enterprises), share of trade within the CMEA area (reflecting the functional specialization of the economies within the Soviet division of labor), repressed inflation (as a proxy for the relative scarcity of goods), and black market premium (indicating the expected and perceived real value of the national currency and thus the level of distortion of the national economy in relation to the relative prices that would come into effect in a liberalized economy).

Applying Ole Nørgaard’s index (2000) we can draw a conclusion that Belarus, the most “distorted” of all the post-socialist economies (followed by Ukraine), had prerequisites for autocracy from the point of view of theories of economic distortions.

7. Constitutional design

The proponents of parliamentarism (Frye (1997); Bruszt (2002); Bunce (1999) and Fish (2006)) pointed at the importance of the constitutional design, arguing that parliaments that grow stronger amid the weakening of presidents are a strong blessing for democratization. Timothy Frye (1997) and Steven Fish (2006) come to a conclusion that the presence of a strong legislature to balance the president facilitates the development of democracy, while the opposite favors autocracy. Kitschelt (1999) argued that constitutional designs were chosen and adopted in post-socialist countries spontaneously, and not always reflected the real distribution of power among the players engaged in constitutional process. Therefore, the thesis “the stronger the parliament, the stronger the democracy” is not tautological.

To operationalize, we’ll borrow the “parliamentary power index”, designed by Steven Fish in 1999 and adopt the score of 0.6 as the threshold between the countries with stronger and weaker parliaments. The Belarus of the period between 1991 and 1994 belonged to the group of countries with strong legislatures (the institute of the president was non-existent then). Therefore, Belarus, alongside Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia belonged to the group of countries predisposed to democracy.


This article deliberately lacks both the criticism of each of the listed theories and attempts to find the best “variable”. A separate article of this cycle will be dedicated to this. As was said above, this paper intends to assess the starting points of Belarus in comparative perspective with a non-critical application of theories.

The conclusions that can be drawn from the above analysis is that six out of seven democratization theories predicted an authoritarian outcome for Belarus, and only one factor – the constitutional design in the early 1990s – prevented the country from sliding towards autocracy during the first three years of independence. If interpreted pessimistically, this proportion would mean that in this country, with its high degree of predisposition to autocracy, authoritarianism was postponed until 1994 for the simple reason that presidentialism was somewhat behind the schedule (Bulgakov’s Annushka bought the oil, but didn’t spill it yet).

However, democracy in Belarus was possible, and remains possible in the long run. However, it is not about Belarusian society, which must be mature for democracy; in the case of Belarus, democratization will rather start when the monolith of the elites in power finally fractures and the winner-takes-it-all scenario becomes impossible. Belarus will only democratize when new independent groups emerge in the country, having similar resources and agreeing that institutional compromise is cheaper than the war of all against all.

What can trigger such a situation? Some accidental events, errors made by the authorities, external shocks that lead to economic crises and bring about structural economic reforms. The critical necessity of reforms only contributes to the pressure on the political class, which has so far demonstrated its inability to assume the political risks of modernization and thereby, paradoxically, runs even greater risks.