The Moral of the Tale of Soviet Reform

According to the Moscow Times,

The Communist Party of China has compelled its officials to watch a documentary about the Soviet Union’s collapse to draw lessons on how not to govern, and to ensure that they remain disciplined amid economic reforms.

The film “has been shown at dozens of political meetings during the past few months” as part of a larger push to shore up party discipline during a period of economic reform, a process that carries significant political risks.

So what’s the takeaway those party functionaries are supposed to glean? According to social scientist Yakov Berger:

Market reforms are one thing, and political reforms are a completely different thing.

So…”Just say no”? Now I’m curious to see the film. After all, it’s not like the CPSU under Gorbachev set out in 1986 with a plan to allow free speech and multiparty democracy.

Glasnost’ is now widely used as shorthand for sweeping political reform, a throwing open of the gates (or tearing down of the walls?) impeding civil liberties in authoritarian regimes. In fact, as Joseph Gibbs and others have argued, glasnost’ actually got its start in the early 1980s as a limited blurring of the lines on permissible speech that was explicitly intended to work in service to the Communist Party’s larger agenda of economic restructuring, or perestroika. By that time, some party leaders recognized that inefficiency was stifling the Soviet economy, that planners would need better information to combat these ills, and that many bureaucrats would try to resist any changes. Glasnost’ was the solution those party leaders hit on. Under this new policy, citizens were allowed to speak more openly about certain aspects of their work or the economy in an effort to help ferret out the waste and corruption that was dragging the USSR down. In essence, glasnost’ was a whip the party leadership could employ against its own bureaucracy in pursuit of greater efficiency. This was decidedly not freedom of speech, however, and it certainly did not entail any larger ideas about ending the Party’s monopoly on power, an eventuality that many national party leaders bitterly contested until pretty late in the game.

Well, what happened? Unintended consequences, that’s what. People responded strategically to these new developments and began to probe the openings glasnost’ created. Like China, the USSR was a large country ostensibly governed by a massive and variegated political machine. Party officials at the local and regional and national level argued among themselves about how to respond to attempts to probe the limits of glasnost’, and the results of those arguments varied. Those variations suggested further openings that reformists and activists then explored further, a process that led eventually but hardly directly to wider political change.

Chinese officials seem to believe, or at least to hope, that they can avoid this path by responding firmly to attempts to convert economic reforms into political challenges, by sharply distinguishing between the two and only doing the one. Maybe they’re right, but I don’t think so. It’s worth recalling that the Soviets sometimes tried to draw clear lines, too—in Tbilisi in April 1989, for example—but those harsh responses didn’t always have the desired effect.

So, yes, market reforms are one thing and political change another, but my summation of the Soviet experience would be a bit different. As I see it, reform of any significant scope or scale is a process that you can try to guide, but it is not something that you can control. Have fun trying to ride the tiger, President Xi.

N.B. This is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote on Tumbling Chimp yesterday morning.

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Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

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