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While modern times have seen more than one, however partial, attempt to democratize Russia, democratization in the narrow sense refers to policies pursued by Mikhail Gorbachev and his closest associates, roughly from 1987 to 1991.

The language of democratization was widely employed within a one-party context by Gorbachev's predecessors, most notably by Nikita Khrushchev. Yet their interpretations of demokratizatsiya and democratizm diverged fundamentally from universal definitions of democracy. "Soviet democratization" implied increased public discussions, mostly on economic and cultural issues; increased engagement of Communist Party (CPSU) leaders with ordinary people; and some liberalization, namely, expansion of individual freedoms and relaxation of censorship. However, electoral contestation for power among different political forces was out of the question. The openly stated goals of democratization Soviet-style included reestablishing feedback mechanisms between the leadership and the masses over the head of the bureaucracy; encouraging public pressure to improve the latter's performance; and improving the psychological and moral climate in the country, including confidence in the CPSU leadership, with expectations of a resulting increase in labor productivity. Additional, unspoken goals ranged from strengthening a new leader's position, through public discussion and support, vis-à-vis conservative elements, to promoting Moscow's international image and its standing vis-à-vis the West.

Gorbachev's initial steps followed this pattern, relying, at times explicitly, upon the legacy and experience of Khrushchev's thaw; the official slogan of the time promised "more democracy, more socialism." Soon, however, Gorbachev pushed democratization toward full-scale electoral democracy. The reforms sparked demands for ideological pluralism and ethnic autonomy. As the momentum of reform slipped from under his control, Gorbachev's own policies were increasingly driven by improvisation rather than long-term planning. Emerging nonparty actorshuman rights organizations, independent labor unions, nationalist movements, entrepreneurs, criminal syndicates, proto-parties, and individual strongmen such as Boris Yeltsinas well as old actors and interest groups, with new electoral and lobbying vehicles at their disposal, introduced their own goals and intentions, often vaguely understood and articulated, at times misrepresented to the public, into Gorbachev's original design of controlled democratization.

Preliminary steps toward electoral democracy at the local level were taken in the wake of the CPSU Central Committee plenum of January 1987 that shifted perestroika's emphasis from economic acceleration to political reform. A subsequent Politburo decision, codified by republican Supreme Soviets, introduced experimental competitive elections to the soviets in multi-member districts. They were held in June 1987 in 162 selected districts; on average, five candidates ran for four vacancies; election losers were designated as reserve deputies, entitled to all rights except voting. Bolder steps toward nationwide electoral democracymulticandidate elections throughout the country and unlimited nomination of candidates (all this while preserving the CPSU rule, with the stated intent of increasing popular confidence in the Party)were enunciated by Gorbachev at the Nineteenth CPSU Conference in June 1988. The Conference also approved his general proposals for a constitutional change to transfer some real power from the CPSU to the representative bodies.

Seeking to redesign the Union-level institutions, some of Gorbachev's advisers suggested French-style presidentialism, while others harked back to the radical participatory democracy of the 1917 soviets, when supreme power was vested in the hands of their nationwide congresses. Idealistically minded reformers envisaged this as a return to the unspoiled Leninist roots of the system. Gorbachev initially opted for the latter, in the form of the Congress of People's Deputies, a 2,250-member body meeting once (and subsequently twice) per year. Yet only 1,500 of its deputies were directly elected in the districts, while 750 were picked by public organizations (from Komsomol to the Red Cross), including one hundred by the CPSU Central Committee, a precautionary procedure that violated the principle of voters' equality. The Congress was electing from its ranks a working legislature, the bicameral Supreme Soviet of 542 members (thus bearing the name of the preexisting institution that had been filled by direct however phony elections). The constitutional authority of the latter was designed to approximate that of Western parliaments, having the power to confirm and oversee government members.

The relevant constitutional amendments were adopted in December 1988; the election to the Congress took place in March 1989. This was the first nationwide electoral campaign since 1917, markedat least in major urban centers and most developed areas of the countryby real competition, non-compulsory public participation, mass volunteerism, and high (some of them, arguably, unrealistic) expectations. Though more than 87 percent of those elected were CPSU members, by now their membership had little to do with their actual political positions. The full ideological spectrum, from nationalist and liberal to the extreme left, could be found among the rank and file of the Party. On the other hand, wide cultural and economic disparities resulted in the extremely uneven impact of democratization across the Union (thus, in 399 of the 1,500 districts only one candidate was running, while in another 952 there were two, but in this case competition was often phony). And conservative elements of the nomenklatura were able to rig and manipulate the elections, in spite of the public denunciations, even in advanced metropolitan areas, Moscow included. Besides, the twotier representation, in which direct popular vote was only one of the ingredients, was rapidly delegitimized by the increasingly radical understanding of democracy as people's power, spread by the media and embraced by discontented citizenry.

The First Congress (opened in Moscow on May 25, 1989, and chaired by Gorbachev), almost entirely broadcast live on national TV, was the peak event of democratization "from above," as well as the first major disappointment with the realities of democracy, among both the reform-minded establishment and the wider strata. Cultural gaps and disparities in development between parts of the Union were reflected in the composition of the Congress that not only was extremely polarized in ideological terms (from Stalinists to radical Westernizers and anti-Russian nationalists from the Baltics), but also bristled with social and cultural hostility between its members (e.g., representatives of premodern Central Asian establishments versus the emancipated Moscow intelligentsia). Advocates of further democratization (mostly representing Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Baltic nations, Ukraine, and the Caucasus, and ranging from moderate Gorbachevites to revolutionary-minded dissidents), who later united in the Interregional Deputies Group (IDG) and were widely described as "the democrats," had less than 250 votes in the Congress and even a smaller proportion in the Supreme Soviet. The bulk of the deputies had no structured political views but were instinctually conservative; they were famously branded by an IDG leader Yuri Afanasiev as "the aggressively obedient majority." The resulting stalemate compelled Gorbachev to abandon legislative experiments and shift to a presidential system, while the democrats (many of them recently high-ranking CPSU officials, with only a handful of committed dissidents) also turned their backs on the Congress to lead street rallies and nascent political organizations, eventually winning more votes and positions of leadership in republican legislatures and city councils.

Thus, democratization's center of gravity shifted away from the all-Union level. The key events of this stage were the unprecedentedly democratic republican and municipal elections (FebruaryMarch 1990), with all deputies now elected directly by voters, and the abolition of Article 6 of the USSR Constitution that had designated the CPSU as "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system" with the right to determine "the general policy of the country." The elimination of this article, demanded by the IDG and mass rallies and eventually endorsed by Gorbachev, was approved by the Congress on March 13, 1990, thus removing constitutional obstacles for a multi-party systemarguably the major and perhaps the only enduring institutional change of the period achieved through public pressure.

From that time issues of democratization yielded center stage to institutional collapse and economic reforms. A major transitional point was Gorbachev's decision to become USSR president through a parliamentary vote, instead of running in direct nationwide elections. As a result, his presidency and other Union-wide institutions lagged behind republican authorities in terms of their democratic legitimacy. This was accentuated by Yeltsin's election as Russian president (June 1991), the first direct popular election of a Russian ruler, which initially endowed him with exceptional legitimacy, but with no effective mechanisms of accountability and restraint. And the disbanding of the Soviet Union (December 1991) had an ambivalent relationship to democratization, for while it was decided by democratically elected leaders, Yeltsin had no popular mandate for such a decision; to the contrary, it nullified the results of the Union-wide referendum of March 1991, where overwhelming majorities in these republics voted for the preservation of the Union.

As a result of the events of the years 19881991, Russia acquired and institutionalized the basic facade of a minimalist, or procedural democracy, without providing citizens with leverage for wielding decisive influence over the authorities. The disillusionment with democratization has been shared both in the elitesome viewing it as a distraction or even an obstacle in the context of market reformsand among the population presented with the impotence and malleability of representative institutions in the face of economic collapse. Lilia Shevtsova describes post-Soviet Russia as "elective monarchy"; others emphasize a gradual reversal of democratic achievements since 1991, under Vladimir Putin in particular. The judgement about the ultimate significance of democratization on its own terms will hinge upon the extent to which a new wave of democratizers learns the accumulated experience and is able to benefit from this knowledge.

See also: communist party of the soviet union; perestroika; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich


Brown, Archie. (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. New York: Oxford University Press.

Chiesa, Giulietto, and Northrop, Douglas Taylor. (1993). Transition to Democracy: Political Change in the Soviet Union, 19871991. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Cohen, Stephen F., and vanden Heuvel, Katrina, eds. (1989). Voices of Glasnost. New York: Norton.

Dunlop, John B. (1993). The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hough, Jerry F. (1997). Democratization and Revolution in the USSR, 19851991. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Kagarlitsky, Boris. (1994). Square Wheels: How Russian Democracy Got Derailed. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Reddaway, Peter, and Glinski, Dmitri. (2001). Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism against Democracy. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press.

Starr, S. Frederick. (1988). "Soviet Union: A Civil Society." Foreign Policy.

Steele, Jonathan. (1994). Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Theen, Rolf H. W., ed. (1991). The U.S.S.R. First Congress of People's Deputies: Complete Documents and Records, May 25, 1989June 10, 1989. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Paragon House.

Urban, Michael E. (1990). More Power to the Soviets: The Democratic Revolution in the USSR. Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar.

Dmitri Glinski

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Democracy has widely become the norm within the international community. To promote democracy around the world is not only a key goal of international organizations such as the World Bank, but it is also on the foreign policy agenda of many European and North American countries. Nevertheless, democracy is a notoriously vague and encompassing term. It is often used as a synonym of whatever is desirable in a state, such as good governance and democratic values of elites and citizens. Illustrative of the lack of consensus about its meaning are the results of a survey finding that 150 different studies used more than 550 subtypes of democracy (Collier and Levitsky 1997).


Despite this lack of consensus, most political scientists and policy makers use the minimalist definition of democracy described in Robert A. Dahls 1971 book, Polyarchy. According to this definition, democracy is a system of government in which citizens choose their political leaders during periodic free and fair elections, thereby giving those leaders the right to rule after the elections. There are two main theoretical dimensions of democratization: competition among political parties for the peoples vote on the one hand, and inclusive suffrage and political participation on the other hand. South Africas apartheid government (19481994) was competitive but not inclusive, because the vast (black) majority was excluded from the right to vote. Regimes in the Peoples Republic of China and North Korea are inclusive but not competitive, because one political party dominates political life completely. Only regimes with both competition and inclusive suffrage can be classified as a (minimal) democracy.

Democratization is the process whereby a country adopts a democratic regime. Dankwart A. Rustow (1970) distinguished four different phases. During the first phase national borders, national unity, and a coherent national identity must emerge, before democratization can occur. The second preparatory phase is characterized by political conflicts between old and new elites in which the new ones demand more influence in national politics. During the decision phase, key actors, such as the political parties, must accept a fundamental set of democratic rules and practices. Finally, basic democratic institutions and the rules of the game are established in the habituation phase. Each phase is the result of different causal processes. Given their different causes, it is useful to separate them.

Moreover, scholars often distinguish the phases of transition to and consolidation of democracy from each other. Transitions are defined as the interval between the dissolution of the old regime and the installation of a new regime, while the essence of consolidation is in defining and fixing the core rules of democratic competition. It should be noted, however, that there is a huge debate about the exact meaning of both terms in the democratization literature (Schedler 1998).


Democratization is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although some Greek city-states had democratic characteristics, modernor minimaldemocracy dates only from the late nineteenth century. Since the publication of Samuel P. Huntingtons influential 1991 study of democratization, The Third Wave, scholars have come to take for granted the notion that the spread of democracy has come in waves. A wave of democratization is defined as a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occurs within a specified period and that significantly outnumbers transitions in the opposite direction.

During the so-called first wave of democratization between 1893 and 1924, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and many countries in western Europe made a transition to democracy. The regime changes to authoritarianism during the second reverse wave after 1924 reflected the rise of the ideologies of communism and fascism. A second short wave began after World War II (19391945) and continued until approximately 1960. Allied occupation promoted the installation of democratic institutions in West Germany, Japan, and Finland. Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay were the Latin American states that adopted a democratic system during this period. There is no clear second reverse wave, but the 1960s and 1970s can better be described as an intermezzo, in which transitions to both nondemocratic and democratic regimes occurred (Doorenspleet 2000). In this period, for example, Colombia and Venezuela became democratic. By contrast, the polarized Chilean democracy was overthrown by a military coup led in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet (19152006). Military coups in Uruguay and Argentina ended democracy in these countries as well.

The third wave began in southern Europe in the 1970s in Portugal, Greece, and Spain. Then it spread to Latin Americato Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, El Salvador, Uruguay, Honduras, and Brazil. This wave of democratization also affected some Asian countries in the late 1980s, such as the Philippines and South Korea. The so-called fourth wave since 1989 was overwhelming and global. At the end of the 1980s, the wave swept through Eastern Europe. The 1990s saw widespread rapid collapse of nondemocratic regimes in Africa, and more than a dozen democracies emerged. The decade after the cold war was a fruitful period for democratization around the world.


Nevertheless, many countries remained authoritarian. So, why do some countries democratize whereas others do not? According to modernization theories, which became dominant in the late 1950s, democratization is less likely in poor countries. If less-developed countries are not able to undergo this political modernization process, it is caused by a low level of socioeconomic development in the country. Each less-developed country would have to follow the same path already traversed by the now developed and democratic countries. After the publication of Seymour Martin Lipsets 1959 article, Some Social Requisites of Democracy, many statistical studies showed that there was indeed a positive correlation between development and democracy. India, with its democratic regime and low economic development, is always brought up as an important exception to this general pattern, though. Moreover, studies of the 1990s show that modernization theory can explain democratic consolidation, but not transitions to democracy (Przeworski and Limongi 1997).

As a reaction and alternative to the modernization approach, the dependency and world-system theories emerged in the early 1970s in Latin America (Bollen 1983). The underdevelopment of Latin America was attributable to its reliance on the export of primary products to the industrial states of the capitalist system, and it was argued that Latin America had been turned into a satellite of the capitalist metropolises of Europe and North America. This approach states that a countrys position in the world system, located in either the dominant rich core or impoverished subordinate periphery, is an important determinant of democracy. According to this approach, if a country is not able to become democratic, this is due to external factorsrather than internal domestic factors.

In addition to economic development and international dependency, cultural influences, ethnic divisions, the type of religion, and historical institutional arrangements have been mentioned by researchers as important structural explanations of democratization. According to actor-oriented theorists, however, regime transitions are not determined by structural factors, but are shaped by what principal political actors do as well as by when and how they do so. In their 1986 study Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Guillermo ODonnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead abandoned their earlier structuralist perspective and began to focus on the role of elites. They emphasized that elite dispositions, calculations, and pacts largely determine whether or not an opening to democracy will occur at all. Strategic interaction between elites from the state (political parties, the military, and political leaders) and elites from the society (social movements, civil society groups, and intellectuals) establishes the mode of transition and the type of regime that emerges afterward. In transitions from below mounting popular pressures and mass mobilization eventually lead to regime change, while in transitions from above political and military rulers respond to crises by introducing democratic reforms whose timing and substance they hope to control.

Since the early 1990s, democratization scholars emphasize that the described approaches complement rather than contradict each other, and suggest that a comprehensive theory of democratization should include not only structural but also actor-oriented factors.


Democratization processes seldom follow an easy, smooth path. On the contrary, violent conflicts and wars often occur in democratizing states. Conflict can be prevented more easily in very nondemocratic regimes on the one end (because these regimes are willing and able to suppress dissent) and in democratic regimes on the other end (because these regimes recognize minority rights and try to conciliate, thereby reducing dissatisfaction and conflict). Democratizing countries, however, are situated in a dangerous phase in which conflict is very likely.

Not all democratic transitions are dangerous, but the chance of war rises especially in those transitional states that lack the strong political institutions that are needed to make democracy work, such as an effective state and organized political parties (Mansfield and Snyder 2005). The most important reason for this is that political leaders try to use nationalism or ethnic identity as an ideological motivator of collective action in the absence of effective political institutions. Then politicians have the incentives to resort to violent nationalist or ethnic appeals, tarring their opponents as enemies of the nation or the ethnic group, in order to prevail in electoral competition. When political institutions are strong, though, war can be prevented. This is particularly crucial in ethnically divided countries. A stable democracy is impossible in a country without strong political institutions.

SEE ALSO Democracy; Democracy, Indices of; Dependency; Elite Theory; Ethnocentrism; Huntington, Samuel P.; Nationalism and Nationality; War; World Bank, The; World-System


Bollen, Kenneth A. 1983. World System Position, Dependency, and Democracy: The Cross-National Evidence. American Sociological Review 48 (4): 468479.

Collier, David, and Steven Levitsky. 1997. Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research. World Politics 49 (3): 430451.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Doorenspleet, Renske. 2000. Reassessing the Three Waves of Democratization. World Politics 52 (3): 384406.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1991. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. American Political Science Review 53 (1): 69105.

Mansfield, Edward D., and Jack Snyder. 2005. Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

ODonnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. 1986. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Przeworski, Adam, and Fernando Limongi. 1997. Modernization: Theories and Facts. World Politics 49 (2): 155183.

Rustow, Dankwart A. 1970. Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model. Comparative Politics 2 (3): 337363.

Schedler, Andreas. 1998. What Is Democratic Consolidation? Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 91107.

Renske Doorenspleet

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