On August 20, Estonia celebrated its Independence Day from the Soviet Union. When those tumultuous times ended, the world gained 15 more independent states. For some reason, however, some have done better in consolidating democracy than others. Fifty years of Soviet occupation, destruction and devastation left all 15 in a very dire situation, yet the Baltic States (and Georgia) have turned their countries around.
So what is it that made the difference? Why can Estonia celebrate a democratic success story while at the top of the world, with membership in NATO, OECD and the eurozone (even with the problems, it is quite an exclusive group and truly an accomplishment), while others are jailing feminist punk-rock groups for speaking (or rather singing) out against the leadership?
One of the most convincing arguments is that the Baltic States were so successful because there was still a living memory of democracy. Even though the democratic situation in Estonia deteriorated in the late 1930s, the country had democratic free elections, a wide franchise (being among the first countries in the world to give the vote to women in 1920) and an understanding of the merits of capitalism. People who remembered these times were still alive and could push for a strong constitution. Central Asian countries, Belarus and Ukraine were annexed to the USSR well before they could even think about practicing democracy. They therefore had to commence on a soul-searching mission to find the path right for them – a path that led to the Denim (in Belarus), Tulip (Kyrgyzstan), Rose (Georgia) and Orange (Ukraine) revolutions, some of course more successful than others.
Another strong factor in Baltic success was geographic proximity to other successful democracies. This was particularly strong in Estonia, where support, encouragement, and advice from Finland and Sweden were crucial to early democratic development. In Estonia, Finland had been valorised throughout the Soviet rule, and there was a strong ambition to be on the same development ladder. What is more, in the longer term the possibility of membership in the European Union proved to be a strong incentive for reform – especially in the field of citizenship politics. The original rules were rather exclusive and were somewhat relaxed as a result of a strong lobby from the European Union – an action that boosted Estonia to achieve top scores in democracy rankings.
A reason that perhaps less explains Estonian success, but more the failures in many of the Soviet successor states, is oil. Oil is dirty and oil corrupts – but it makes countries rich fast. There is an established theory in political science of the so-called “resource curse,” whereby countries that discover oil or other expensive resources before they manage to establish a democratic state will not be able to consolidate a democratic regime. Oil-rich countries are rich enough to subsidize their illegitimate executives. This explains why countries like Norway have managed to stay democratic, as they had a strong democratic constitution well before the discovery of oil. Countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, however, have strongly been affected by the oil curse and simply do not have to worry about public opinion when affections can be easily bought with the oil money.
There is no truth behind certain national cultures being more pro-democratic than others. There are simply favorable conditions that need to be enhanced and supported, both domestically and internationally, as well as detrimental effects that need to be mitigated. Important roles are to be played by domestic politicians, community leaders, civil society and the populations, but yet it is clear that no state operates in complete isolation from other countries. International support and “carrots and sticks” are needed to facilitate democracy in all countries. And keep your fingers crossed that with every passing year since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other 12 states are improving their political liberties and civil rights scores.