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Arab Spring is not the same as post-USSR

July 5, 2011

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, who spent years covering the post-USSR transition to democracy, wrote last week that Arab Spring nations need to rush to the polls in order to seize the democratic moment. She compared her experiences in post-USSR nations to what is occurring in the Arab world. But her basis for comparison is flawed. As I argue below, Arab Spring elections should delay until fledgling political parties form because the democratic conditions regarding the Arab Spring are not similar to post-USSR Central and Eastern European nations.

First, the USSR represented a top-down style of governance that affected a dozens of territories that would later become free and independent nations. That impacted local political organizational structure in the sense that Kazakhstan, Ukraine, etc. did not have local governing bodies with any tangible effect on the economy, welfare, etc. That is simply not the case with Arab Spring nations, which already have developed strong networks of political organization that would not have been possible in the USSR.

Second, the USSR was a centralized economy. The new nations borne out of the USSR’s downfall opened their economies partially because they wanted to become part of an increasingly integrated world, but they were not prepared for the shocks of misplaced resources and productive inefficiency when they opened their borders. The USSR, by being such a large region and keeping commerce within its borders, could subsidize and artificially sustain failing industries. The new nations quickly discovered most of their technology was so old and the cost of production so high that they were not economically viable in the open market.

Arab Spring nations’ products have operated in the free market for years, although much of these nations’ revenues come from oil. Still, even having that resource is something post-USSR nations did not have, and therefore it is up to Arab citizens to democratically elect the representatives they feel will best handle those oil revenues — whether that means setting up a more comprehensive welfare system, using it to create business tax credits or other initiatives. Most Arab Spring nations have at least some semblance of free markets and politicians therefore must make decisions whether to keep those markets open, open them further or close them. All of these are economically philosophical questions that require debate and dialogue between established parties, and it’s a dialogue that did not exist in the nascent post-USSR days.

Third, while Arab nations’ press freedoms are certainly limited by U.S. standards, they are by far and away more developed than the former USSR. Noting this, there is a greater window for press debate of party positions and philosophy prior to voting in democratic elections in Arab Spring nations than there were in post-USSR nations. Arab Spring nations have seized the benefits of social media, and it would be a shame if those nations stopped short of allowing the press to analyze and discuss party platforms prior to these democratic elections.

Fourth, and final for now, post-USSR nations had no existing foreign policy legacy once that nation dissolved whereas Arab nations are entangled in a variety of agreements with other Arab nations, the West (usually over oil and Israel) and emerging economies such as India and China (also for oil). Foreign policy will be an enormously important issue for Arab voters, where doctrines and agreements could be jeopardized, reversed or enhanced based on whichever party wins the majority. This has serious implications for Israel and the shifting geopolitical power structure concerning relations with China and India relative to a somewhat declining U.S.

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