In this column I focus on the Soviet Union’s legacy and on people’s attitudes towards democratic political systems compared to centralized, authoritarian political systems in which leaders are unhindered by parliaments or elections. I have used the findings of the World Values Survey (WVS), which has been conducting annual polls in the post Soviet territory since 1995.
After the collapse of Soviet Union, all 15 republics started flirting with democratic norms: elections, independent media and judicial systems. Some excelled and ended up in the EU and NATO camps, while others like Georgia are still striving for such rewards. More than a few, unfortunately, remain on Soviet autopilot and have political systems characterized by one-man shows. Regardless, democracy is the formal motto that all countries employ and with varying degrees of success.
At first glance, most of countries’ populations prefer both the “iron fist” or strong-leader rule and democratic political system at home. The latter is certainly preferred by more respondents, the only exception being Kyrgyzstan where a strong leader is preferred by 10% more of the public compared to a democratic system, 82% vs. 72%. Respondents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries with “challenged democracies,” prefer democratic rule (87% and 86%, respectively). Similar results were found in Ukraine, where 86% of the public preferred democracy over authoritarian rule. (The fieldwork was conducted before the country’s territorial integrity was in question.)
Azerbaijan is the most interesting case in this study: only 22% of the public favors a strong leader, even as they have “enjoyed” strong leader rule by the same family since well before the Soviet Union ended. Every four out of five surveyed citizens would like democracy to be the norm in Azerbaijan. I have no clear idea why this is. One explanation could be the proven and much discussed scientific fact that concepts are understood differently by different nations. This is especially true if one looks at the 1995 wave of WVS in Azerbaijan when ONLY 5% of the public supported strong-leader rule.
Chart 1: Numbers in the graph indicate combined responses of Very Good and Fairly Good for two political types: strong leader and democratic political regimes (figures are given in percentages).
If we look closely at the Georgian data since 1995, there are two interesting findings: a) the large majority of people support democratic rule of law and b) majority still considers a strong leader to be the right political system to govern the country. Please see the chart 2.
Chart 2. Strong Leadership and Democratic System, Georgian trends. (figures are given in percentages).
The reality for Georgia and most countries (except Estonia) is that they were or are governed by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, with some “winning” 3, 4 and even 5 presidential elections in a row by astonishing margins.
Bottom line is that despite the 25 years that have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is still a big wall in the minds of millions of people of the former USSR that prevents them from thinking about the benefits of rule of law and actively participating in the decisions that affect their own lives.
GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. GORBI is an exclusive member of Gallup International research network since 2003 and has over two decades of experience in survey research in the former Soviet Union, as well as Mongolia and Iraq.