Modelled Trajectories of Post-Communist Regimes

Hungarian researchers Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics came up with a trajectory of changes in post-Soviet political regimes. Offering a new typology, co-authors claim that there is no separation of political, economic and community spheres in the countries of former USSR

Bálint Magyar, Bálint Madlovics

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the “end of history” did not come: the illusion that communist dictatorships could only be replaced by Western-type liberal democracies was not fulfilled. For a long time, there was a consensus that we are part of a linear, progressive process of development in this direction, and ad hoc deviations from the norms of liberal democracies initially seemed to be “teething problems” rather than “adult” personality traits of regimes. The political science literature of the 1990s was dominated by various branches of transitology: the study of how transition countries cope with the difficulties they face on the road to liberal democracy.[1]

Around the turn of the millennium, transitology was replaced by hybridology, when scholars realized that ‘neither dictatorship nor democracy’ regimes that emerged after the regime changes do not necessarily ‘evolve’ toward the Western ideal. Instead, their institutional elements are capable of constituting stable, sui generis systems.[2] Descriptive language experiments mostly tried to interpret the political processes of individual post-communist states in some form along the democracy-dictatorship axis: illiberal democracy, defective democracy, managed democracy, etc. on the one hand, and semi-dictatorships, electoral authoritarianism, competitive authoritarian regimes etc. on the other hand.[3] These attempts focus primarily on the formal system of political institutions like parties, elections, and the constitution. As if the center of a regime, as in Western societies, was necessarily the political sphere with an own, autonomous logic separated from other spheres of social action. However, in the post-communist region, the three spheres of social action are not or only rudimentarily separated: the political, economic, and community spheres.[4]

The separation of spheres manifests as the culture and norms of the actors who populate the regime, which in turn presupposes a level of separation for normal functioning. For example, in a liberal democracy, there exists a distinction between a politician’s obligation to the state and obligation to the family.[5] If the norms of the actors predominantly reflect the same separation as the formal institutions of the regime, then the regime is sustainable. Otherwise, actors will operate formal institutions according to their own informal norms—as it often happened when formal institutions of liberal democracy were established after the regime change.[6] If the prevailing regime presumes a different level of separation than its actors, then it will (a) either be weak and prone to degenerate into a more feasible type or (b) have to institute specific (effective) mechanisms to avoid degeneration. The lack of separation of spheres of social action appears in the form of certain, often only informally existing stubborn social structures in the countries of the region.

The development of stubborn structures can be traced throughout history, separating the periods before, during, and after communism. In pre-communist times, the separation of spheres followed civilizational boundaries. When we talk about civilizations, we consider the boundaries described by Samuel P. Huntington,[7] but we grasp the functioning of civilizations with Peter J. Katzenstein’s new theory, which responds to criticisms of Huntington.[8] According to him, there are many civilizations in the world, but they are also internally plural and are in constant change. What still unites the countries of each civilization under the slogan of “unity in diversity” is (1) the specific interactions of the elites of different countries, and (2) the common civilizational identity shared by the population. For the former, Katzenstein highlights the role of civilizational actors (states, empires, political unions) and the techniques they use for “silent spread,” copying, and export; for the latter, he shows that people who populate each civilization develop a particular interpretation of reality, which draws them the lines between “us” and “the others,” as well as between “good” and “bad behavior.”

The Hungarian historian Jenő Szűcs speaks of three historically defined regions of Europe, arguing at the time of Europe’s utmost dismemberment after World War II that a Central-Eastern-European region existed but was part of the Soviet Bloc. He discerned the eastern perimeter of Central-Eastern Europe as the border between Western and Orthodox Christianity.[9] Following Szűcs, we speak about three historical regions of the former Soviet empire: the Western Christian region, which included the Baltic and Central European states outside the Soviet Union; the Eastern Orthodox region, made up of the Soviet republics of Europe and Bulgaria, Georgia, Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia; and finally, the Islamic historical region, which includes the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. These regions adopted the communist system in different ways, and later, after its fall, they also had different adaptation potential for the establishment of the institutional system of liberal democracy.

While the region was populated by feudal states in pre-communist times, countries that belonged to Western Christianity showed a greater degree of separation and autonomy of spheres than feudal states belonging to Eastern Orthodox, Islamic, and Sinic civilizations. The lack of separation was represented by a series of interrelated and mutually-supportive phenomena, which were also the forerunners of the stubborn structures of the 20th and 21st centuries. These included, at the level of social structures, traditional, feudal and personal networks and the collusion of power and property;[10] and at the level of rulership structures, patronalism (a pyramidal network of dependent relationships) along the personal networks, and patrimonialism (the lack of separation of the private and public domain) following the interplay of power and property.[11]

In communist times, countries of different civilizations were put under the “political lid” of dictatorship. While different kinds of communism developed in different civilizations, the one-party system and the monopoly of state property induced similar social phenomena and did homogenize the countries to some degree. The communist system brought its own series of interrelated phenomena that represented a merger of spheres of social action, reinforcing the preexisting patterns of (the lack of) separation.[12] If this change impacted Central Eastern Europe as a regression, going further East it meant that the process of separation of spheres of social action was arrested and frozen.

In post-communist times, regime changes involved the change of the formal institutional setting but not of the actors’ informal understanding of the separation of spheres of social action. Liberal democracy was feasible only in countries where the actors’ informal understanding was to separate the spheres of social action. The more unseparated spheres were produced by civilizational belonging and the influence of the communist regime on the level of actors, the more stubbornly the social and domineering structures of the previous systems were present in the new system. Stubborn structures took on new forms in adapting to the institutional system of democracy: informal personal networks emerged, as opposed to traditional and bureaucratic networks; informal patronalism, as opposed to patronalism linked to formal, feudal, and party nomenklatura; the collusion of power and property also exists not informally, in an illegal way, bypassing the legal framework; and patrimonialization, meaning the ruling elite treats public institutions as private domain while maintaining the façade of democracy.

However, the strong presence of these structures only determined the emergence of patronal regimes—not whether they are democratic or autocratic. A patronal regime can be “single-pyramid,” which refers to one patronal network dominating with other networks being subjugated, marginalized or eliminated, or “multi-pyramid,” where multiple networks compete, each representing roughly equal power and neither being strong enough to dominate the others.[13]  Which category a country moved to after the collapse of communism depended mainly on two factors. First, on the level of institutions the presence of divided executive power and proportionate electoral system. The existence of these elements hinders the concentration of power and thus the formation of single-pyramid systems, while their absence favors autocratic attempts.[14] Western linkage and leverage known from hybridology[15] have also contributed to the democratic development of some countries in the region, mainly through US democracy assistance, foreign capital inflows, and the conditions of EU accession. After accession, however, the EU’s system of conditions lost their disciplinary power, and even before accession, they resulted in liberal democracy only in countries where stubborn structures were not strongly present. Where patronal legacy was dominant, Western linkage and leverage brought to life various techniques of camouflage rather than actual democratization.

Understanding the post-communist region requires a new regime typology that simultaneously reflects the order of political institutions and stubborn structures, or the order of economic and social relations after the change of regime. We duplicate the three basic types of János Kornai—democracy, autocracy, dictatorship[16]—to define six ideal-type regimes: Western-type liberal democracy based on pluralist power and the dominance of formal institutions (e.g., Estonia); patronal democracy based on pluralistic competition but of patron-client networks (e.g., Romania, Ukraine); patronal autocracy, dominated by a single-pyramid patronal network that breaks pluralism and embodies the unconstrained informal power of a chief patron in the political and economic spheres (e.g., Hungary, Russia); conservative autocracy where the political sphere is patronalized but the economic sphere is not (e.g., Poland); communist dictatorship that merged politics and the economy through the classical, bureaucratic patronal network (e.g., the Soviet Union before ’89); and finally, market-exploiting dictatorship (e.g., China) that maintains one-party system but operates the private economy in various forms. With the help of the six ideal types, we can span a triangular conceptual space in which the countries of the region can be placed (Figure 1).

Basic Dimensions of Post-Communist Regimes

In the triangular framework, as the six ideal type regimes are depicted—polar types at the poles and intermediary types in between the poles, at the midpoint of the triangle’s sides—they represent a bundle of variables. Intuitively, it is easy to understand the triangle: the closer a country is to an ideal type, the more similar it is to that regime, and conversely, the farther it is from it, the less similar. The tricky part in using a conceptual space is that it is not composed of scales. On a continuous scale, a regime can be placed easily based on some clear, quantified measure. But in a conceptual space, the distance between the points is not mere quantitative distance but “conceptual distance,” that is, deviance in terms of the complete bundles of variables each point represents. This makes placing regimes in the triangular framework less straightforward, and it requires a more unorthodox operationalization.

Our solution is to divide up the triangular framework according to each dimension and showing which section of the triangle represents which concrete feature. To illustrate this, let us choose one dimension—patronalism of rule. The obvious point to start is the six ideal type regimes, where we know its value precisely: liberal democracy and conservative autocracy are non-patronal, patronal democracy and patronal autocracy are informal patronal, and the two dictatorships are bureaucratic patronal. Next, what we have to put into the triangle are the so-called dominance boundaries. These boundaries delimit from each other dominance sections, that is, parts of the triangle where a certain characteristic feature is dominant. This does not mean the level of patronalism is the same in the whole “informal patronal” section: on the contrary, informal patronalism is much more dominant in patronal autocracy than patronal democracy. But they are on the informal patronal side of the dominance boundary, whereas liberal democracy is on the non-patronal side. Exactly how dominant informal patronalism is at a given point of the dominance section is not expressed by the triangular framework. In short, a regime is not assigned to a point based on the exact level of dominance, but it is assigned to a section based on the fact of dominance. Moreover, in the figures below we use dotted lines for dominance boundaries to indicate that they are not sharp boundaries where there are no unclear borderline cases. On the contrary, cases that are on the boundaries are ambiguous in terms of which dominance section they belong, and such regimes often fluctuate between the two features’ dominance.

(Patronalism and formality) In the following, we briefly go through a handful of dimensions used in the triangular framework.[17] On the basis of the stubborn-structures argument, the two main aspectsby which ideal type ruling elites can be conceptualized for the post-communist regionare patronalism and formality. We define “patron-client relationship” as a type of connection between actors where people are connected through vertical chains of command with a strong element of unconditionality and inequality in power.[18] In a patronal relation, one of the participants—the client—is a vassal (i.e., subordinate) of the other—the patron. A patronal connection is a coercive relationship, a tyrannical hierarchy which involves no free exit from, and free entry to, the relationship. As a rulership structure, patronalism embodies “the personalized exchange of concrete rewards and punishments through chains of actual acquaintance,” as opposed to “abstract, impersonal principles such as ideological belief or categorization like economic class.”[19] Within patronalism, we define three categories: non-patronal, like parties and political networks in liberal democracy; bureaucratic patronal, like the nomenklatura in communist dictatorship; and informal patronal, like the ruling elite of patronal autocracy which we term “adopted political family”[20] (Figure 2).

On the other hand, the formality or informality of institutions can be simplified for our purposes to whether they have a form that is legally recognized.[21] In Figure 3, formality and informality appear alongside a third category, “semi-formal, which refers to a permanent coexistence of formal and informal elements, each being dominant on different levels of the regime. In a patronal democracy, for instance, the actors are dominantly informal and the significant parties are only vehicles for the informal patronal networks, granting them a legitimizing framework in a restricted competition, but as none of these actors has enough political power to transgress formal rules freely, the political institutional setting remains dominantly formal.

With respect to ideal-type regimes, we can see that in both liberal democracy and communist dictatorship there is a dominance of formal institutions, be they party or state, single- or multi-pyramid systems. In contrast, a patronal autocracy is characterized by a dominance of informal institutions. This does not mean there is no informality in the former regimes. Informal relations did exist between the members of the nomenklatura in communist dictatorship, including personal relations, informal oral commands and handshake agreements.[22] In liberal democracies, informality appears as informal relations (like acquaintance and friendship), informal agreements (concluded prior to public, e.g., parliamentary debates) and informal norms (like mutual toleration and institutional forbearance).[23] These are significantly different from informal patronalism of post-communism. Most importantly, in the former regimes informality exists around formal institutions, meaning (1) informal relations presuppose the formal rank of the actor, that is, they are formed between formal actors qua formal actors (especially in communist dictatorship), (2) informal norms help the functioning of formal institutions as they indeed mean routinization of a cultured “best practice” (especially in liberal democracies), and (3) informal networks in the elite do not reach beyond the boundaries of the formal institutional setting (equally important in both regimes). In contrast, in patronal autocracies informality overrules formal institutions, meaning (1) informal relations do not presuppose the formal rank of the actor and may enable someone with no political position to have political power, (2) informal networks use formal institutions to the extent they are needed, but otherwise informality replaces formality as the primary determinant of power, law and elite behavior, and (3) informal ties are between those with as well as without formal power, and the resultant network extends beyond the boundaries of the formal institutional setting.

(Ruling party’s function) Pursuing the previous line of thought, we can also see that, in liberal democracy and communist dictatorship informal agreements do not deprive formal bodies of their de facto decision-making role. Decision-making remains within the confines of formal bodies. This is obvious in the case of communist dictatorships, where the subject of Kremlinology was precisely the informal relations within the nomenklatura and between the party leaders, and no informal positions of power held by people outside the nomenklatura existed.[24] In liberal democracies, when agreements are concluded prior to formal debates and therefore outside the formal bodies, the point is secrecy, that is, keeping the real motives and bargains from the public. But those who make the decisions de facto and de jure are the same: the same people who have formal right to decide make the informal deals as well.

In contrast, in patronal autocracies formal decision-making bodies become transmission-belt organizations. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Marxist-Leninist state party, as the center of power, did have transmission belt organizations in the sense that they transmitted the will of the topmost body of the communist party to various segments of society. In patronal autocracies, the ruling party becomes a transmission belt of the informal patronal network, that is, the adopted political family (Figure 4). Thus, the de jure ruling party is not the central actor of the regime but a secondary entity, one of the many institutions used by the adopted political family to grant its activities a formally democratic appearance. The party’s actions are not decided upon by the formal party leadership (or membership) but those who are informal members of the patron’s court. One set of informally connected people make the decisions, some (a) with de jure political power but reaching beyond their formal competences (like a president/prime minister chief patron) and some (b) without de jure political power (like various oligarchs), while those who represent and vote on these decisions in the formal (transparent) institutional realm are dominantly political front men. They do not take decisions but simply manage the decisions taken by the political family.

(Dominant economic mechanism) One may argue that the political and economic spheres are not separated in liberal democracy either because of the strong corporate lobbying of big business. However, in the process of lobbying the politician seeks political benefits (e.g., campaign support) and the entrepreneur seeks economic benefits (e.g., favorable regulations). The two parties enter into business with each other voluntarily, in order to retain their positions at the top of the hierarchies of their own spheres. The politician does not become an entrepreneur, nor does the entrepreneur become a politician.[25] In contrast, in a patronal autocracy we can see oligarchs—people with formal economic power and informal political power—and poligarchs—people with formal political power and informal economic power. In their case, collusion of the spheres of social action happens as the actors acquire interests in spheres other than their own formal sphere, in a way that determines their (market or political) action. No wonder the Russian literature speaks about power&ownership (vlast&sobstvenost), referring to the fact that, in the post-communist region, there is no power without ownership and there is no ownership without power.[26]

In patronal autocracy, market economy is replaced by relational economy. The two are differentiated, among other things, by their dominant economic mechanism (Figure 5). Karl Polanyi distinguished three “forms of integration” in the economy: exchange, reciprocity and redistribution, which are present in every economy at the same time with the dominance of one form.[27] In the market economy of liberal democracy, exchange dominates, allowing market coordination to exist within the confines of normative state regulations. In communist dictatorships, the dominant mechanism was bureaucratic resource-redistribution, meaning the central planner dictated both ownership and production structure. In a relational economy, we can see relational market-redistribution, where the chief patron redistributes markets and defines only the ownership structure, not the production structure. At the same time (in line with Polanyi’s view) parallel mechanisms do not disappear in the relational economy either. Alongside each other, there are competitive markets characterized by de facto private ownership and a lack of targeted, discretional state intervention, as well as relational markets dominated by power&ownership.

(Corruption) While similar patterns of corruption may appear in different regimes, the latter can be generally differentiated by the function of corruption with respect to the regime’s basic functioning (Figure 6). In the case of socialist markets, we can speak about system-lubricating corruption. This harmonizes with the colloquial expression “grease money,” which acquires its literal meaning under socialism: without lubricating the machinery, the planned economy itself would be paralyzed and subjects would need to endure constant shortages in practically all products (in all markets).[28] In competitive markets, we can speak about system-destroying corruption which aims at destroying these markets’ competitive mechanisms. In this process, private actors approach public actors to win illegitimate advantage to them alone (i.e., discretional intervention) in illegal, non-transparent ways. Corruption is (1) bottom-up, meaning the demander of corrupt service is situated in the private sector and the supplier, in the public sector; (2) non-monopolized, meaning there are numerous potential suppliers who can request bribes or be captured by private interests; and (3) a deviance, meaning corruption diverts state functioning from the intentions of its rulers (principal-agent problem).[29]

In contrast, relational markets are dominantly characterized by system-constituting corruption. A relational economy is brought into being by corruption that is (1) top-down, meaning the demander of corrupt service is situated in the public sector and they subjugate actors below them into a patronal network; (2) monopolized, meaning corrupt service is also supplied by the governmental actor—the chief patron—who deprives public administrators of their autonomy to make corrupt offers or accept bribes, forcing them to treat favorably those who are appointed from above; and (3) a system-constituting feature, meaning corruption is not against the rulers’ intentions but made a primary function of the state. The head of the adopted political family, the chief patron runs the state as a criminal organization, and the informal patronal network reaps the various discretional benefits of illegal, corrupt functioning.[30]

(Ideology) In political analyses, the ideology of the actors is usually ‘taken at face value.’ When a politician refers to conservative values, they are conservative; when they voice nationalist arguments, they are nationalist, and so on. This practice presupposes that the communication of the actors necessarily includes their actual goals: that for the actors, the ideology they voice is also the guide of their action. This presupposition is justified if we can observe the harmony of words and deeds, if the acts of power are actually aligned with the communicated ideology. In this case, we are talking about an ideology-driven actor, whose ideology contains the basic features of their system as well. Communist dictatorship is an example, where the one-party rule of the “vanguard of society” is openly declared and embodied in formal institutions.

However, if words and deeds are inconsistent, then the presupposition is unfounded, and we must speak of an ideology-applying actor whose ideology does not contain the basic features of their system (Figure 7). An example is patronal autocracy, where there are openly declared ideological goals but we cannot derive from them the basic features of the regime. For one, patronal autocrats often use populism as an ideological instrument and refer to “the national interest,”[31] but from this we cannot derive features like loyalty-based selection between economic actors within the nation with respect to discretional rewards and punishments. The communication of an ideology-driven actor shows value coherence, while that of an ideology-applying actor shows functionality coherence: they assemble the ideological garb suitable to the anatomy of their autocratic nature from an eclectic assortment of ideological frames. It is not the ideology that shapes the system by which it rules, but the system that shapes the ideology, with huge degrees of freedom and variability.

In the ideal-type liberal democracy, features like the rule of law, the lack of monopoly of political power and the dominance of impartial state institutions are established to ensure the competition of ideologies. Naturally, the leading political elite can be ideology-driven and the institutions it controls will follow that ideology, but not in an exclusive manner. Toward a competing alternative ideology, state institutions will not be biased or subordinated—like in ideology-driven regimes—but neutral instead. Hence, we feature the concept of ideology-neutral regime in Figure 7, reflecting the regime’s attribute of providing a neutral framework of public deliberation.[32]

Modelled Trajectories of Post-Communist Regimes

When an actual regime is placed in the triangular framework, it must be consistent with all triangles, in all dimensions. To express it visually, if the triangles are put on top of each other and one pins a point down with a needle, the points the needle goes through in each layer will belong to a certain dominance section (or sometimes a boundary). The features that these pinned dominance sections represent describe a regime at its current state coherently along the dimensions. It should be noticed that this is a major difference from historical analogies, like (neo-) feudalism or fascism, which try to capture the “essence” of a regime by focusing on a single dimension (patronalism of rule and ideology, respectively) but do not fit when it comes to other aspects. Here, the triangular framework entails a strict criterion of coherence in terms of the definitive features of the regimes, while also concerning all spheres of social action and the level of separation thereof.

In the following, we model regime trajectories within the framework for different countries. When Western observers examine different regime trajectories they tend to focus on the impersonal institutional framework. Of course, they are quite aware of the importance of individuals and personal connections, at least on the level of the elites. But usually the actors are identified by their formal titles and competencies: they see a president or prime minister rather than a chief patron, and a multi-party system, not a competition of patronal networks. However, from what has been said so far, it is clear that the examination of post-communist regimes requires a dual-level approach. That is, we must consider both (1) the level of impersonal institutions, where we can talk about democratic or anti-democratic transformation in terms of de jure guarantees of rule of law and the separation of powers; and (2) the level of personal networks, where we can speak of a patronal or anti-patronal transformation in connection with the degree of de facto separation of spheres of social action and, accordingly, the emergence or liquidation of informal patronal networks. When we spoke of stubborn structures above, we indeed meant this: some of the region’s regime transitions succeeded only on the level of impersonal institutions, while on the other level no anti-patronal transformation accompanied the process of democratization.

(Primary trajectories: transition from communism) In all three historical regions of the former Soviet empire, the primary trajectory of the regimes, meaning the path leading to the ‘first station’ after communist dictatorship, brought regime change.Regime change means the change of Kornai’s general regime types: democracy, autocracy, or dictatorship. However, this could either mean dual-level transformation in line with the presuppositions of transitology, when democratic transformation was accompanied by anti-patronal transformation and liberal democracies came into being; or single-level transformation, when democratic transformation was not accompanied by anti-patronal transformation and patronal democracies or autocracies emerged.

Table 1: Ideal typical primary trajectories in the post-communist region

Table 1 sums up the primary trajectories of the post-communist region, meaning the first ‘station’ they arrived at after the regime change. In theory, countries could have followed five trajectories, leading to five possible targets—the five ideal type regimes besides communist dictatorship. In practice, they did move toward four: from a single-pyramid, bureaucratic patronal setting, they changed either to liberal democracy (multi-pyramid non-patronal), patronal democracy (multi-pyramid informal patronal), patronal autocracy (single-pyramid informal patronal), or market-exploiting dictatorship (single-pyramid bureaucratic patronal). Only one possible target, conservative autocracy, was not approached.

Figure 8 shows the trajectories of four countries. In the case of Estonia, we can see change from the single-pyramid bureaucratic patronal communist dictatorship to multi-pyramid non-patronal liberal democracy. Such changes have been typical in the Western Christian region but Estonia is also an example for a stable equilibrium in terms of regime movements. Since 1992, the country has shown remarkable stability in terms of normative and free-market oriented economic policy, on the one hand,[33] and non-patronal, multi-pyramid ruling elite with Western-type parties and limited power, on the other hand.[34] An example of the Orthodox historical region, Romania has shown a dynamic equilibrium of patronal democracy. This has involved constant oscillation and attempts to alter regime type from governmental position, but no patronal network has had the monopoly of political power to establish a single pyramid.[35] Kazakhstan represents the Islamic historical region with a trajectory from communist dictatorship to patronal autocracy, that is, from the bureaucratic to the informal type of single-pyramid patronal rule.[36] Finally, China is part of the post-communist region because it is not communist anymore, but it experienced not regime change but model change. It remained a dictatorship, but it turned from the communist to the market-exploiting type.[37]

(Secondary trajectories: democratic backsliding) Moving on to typing secondary trajectories, the term we need to consider is democratic backsliding. In hybridology, democratic backsliding or decay is used for deterioration of a democratic polity in terms of freedom, civil rights and liberties, and the constitutional functioning of institutions of public deliberation in general.[38] At first sight, the concept is a normative one, and it seems to carry implicitly the presumption of transitology as well: the country is sliding “back,” as if there was a single street—the democracy-dictatorship axis—where movement from democracy was only possible toward the original starting point (dictatorship). However, in our understanding democratic backsliding is a descriptive concept, and it means movement from a democracy to (a) conservative autocracy, (b) patronal democracy, and (c) patronal autocracy. Changes to dictatorships are possible but highly unlikely, for democracies and even autocracies rely on electoral civil legitimacy, which cannot accommodate an outright one-party system.[39] Table 2 sums up secondary trajectories, each showing one form of democratic backsliding.

Table 2: Ideal typical secondary trajectories (of democratic backsliding) in the post-communist region

Figure 9 again shows four trajectories. Some of these cases of backsliding are single-level transformations, and within that they are only attempts: in Poland, Kaczyński has tried to carry out an anti-democratic transformation without patronal transformation (i.e., from liberal democracy to conservative autocracy),[40] and in the Czech Republic Andrej Babiš has attempted a patronal transformation without anti-democratic transformation (i.e., from liberal democracy to patronal democracy).[41] In Russia, a successful single-level transformation took place by 2003, as Putin transformed the multi-pyramid informal patronal regime into a single-pyramid patronal autocracy.[42] Finally, in Hungary a successful dual-level transformation took place in two parts. Between 1998 and 2002, the country underwent patronal transformation—from liberal to patronal democracy—and in 2010 Viktor Orbán acquired electoral supermajority and began the regime’s anti-democratic transformation—from patronal democracy to autocracy.[43]

(Regime cycles) The so-called color revolutions in the region were mostly characterized by single-level transformations. The concept of the “regime cycle,” introduced by Henry Hale is intended to capture this process. In a patronal democracy characterized by competing patron-client networks, the network in power tries to monopolize power, moving towards autocracy. But when the experiment is reversed it is not the non-patronal world of Western-type liberal democracy that is coming but the competitive order of patronal democracy. In short, the anti-democratic transformation is followed by a democratic transformation, which is not accompanied by an anti-patronal transformation.[44] We have seen this, for example, in Ukraine, when Leonid Kuchma’s single-pyramid patronal network was overthrown in the Orange Revolution in 2004, and when Viktor Yanukovych’s autocratic attempt was stopped at the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.[45]

There have been two exceptions to the rule. One is Serbia, but only because the 2000 Bulldozer Revolution replaced a patronal autocracy rather than a democracy. The other exception is Georgia, where the government of Mikheil Saakashvili, elected after the 2003 Rose Revolution, attempted an anti-patronal transformation, which was not accompanied by democratic transformation. While cutting state control—on an ideology-driven, libertarian basis—was anti-patronal, eliminating the power component of power&ownership, Saakashvili took Georgia in the direction of not liberal democracy but conservative autocracy.[46] Figure 10 depicts the trajectories of Ukraine and Georgia.

The Scope and Limits of the Triangular Framework

While we feature six ideal types, six of the ten countries we mentioned in the previous section were either close to patronal democracy (Romania, Ukraine, Georgia) or to patronal autocracy (Kazakhstan, Russia, Hungary). This raises the question of usefulness of our regime types. Is it a meaningful framework where, for instance, Hungary and Russia are put so close to each other? True, we do not claim these regimes perfectly fit the ideal type, nor that they are equally close to it. But the two countries are still, apparently, vastly different. Russia is a multiethnic, multilingual nation more than 180 times bigger and 140 times more populous than Hungary. Russia is rich in natural resources—Hungary is not. Hungary is an EU-member state with low levels of violence, and the two countries have a largely different place in the world’s system of geopolitics, too. The list could go on. However, when it comes to comparative analysis it is crucial to distinguish regime-specific and country-specific features. The triangular framework is based on regime-specific features like pluralism of power networks, the dominant economic mechanism, and formality of institutions. These features can be seen as regime-specific because they regard the regime, that is, the institutionalized set of fundamental rules structuring the interaction in the political power center (horizontal relation) and its relation with the broader society (vertical relation).[47] In contrast, ethnic cleavages, country size, natural resources and the position in international political and economic system are country-specific features, which provide the exogenous environment in which the given regime operates. Naturally, there are connections between country-specific and regime-specific features, for certain country-specific features (1) influence the sustainability of regimes and (2) might create local peculiarities of certain regime-specific features. But keeping the two sets of features analytically distinct is fundamental to realize similarities, as well as genuine differences, between certain regimes and countries. Going back to our example, we claim there is no bigger difference between Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary in 2019 than the difference was between Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and Kádár’s Hungary before 1989. While two different countries, the regimes of the latter pair could be described by the framework of communist dictatorship, whereas the former pair, by the framework of patronal autocracy.

This distinction leads us to the final point we need to make clear: the triangular framework is not designed to express everything. On the one hand, it does express more dimensions than the ones explained above. In our book The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes, planned to be published in Russian in 2021, we define eleven dimensions, including ones which have not been explained above: plurality of power networks / legitimacy, ruling party’s members, limited nature, hybrid-regime type (elections and the rule of law), and autonomy of civil society. On the other hand, the triangular framework does not show the exact level of dominance of a feature at each point, rather the fact of dominance in each dominance section. When Regime A is placed in the triangle, its position represents the dominance of eleven features; but as the level of dominance is not implied, Regime B placed in the exact same point may differ from Regime A in how dominant each of its eleven features is. Disregarding the level of dominance for the purposes of our framework does not mean we deprive regimes of their complexity: it means we do not pretend to capture every nuance that regimes have in terms of patronalism, formality of institutions, ideology etc. by a misleadingly precise quantity. But the constellation of eleven features’ dominance already define, regardless of how dominant the features are, a distinctive character, or a certain internal logic resulting from the interplay of the eleven dominant features. And while the lack of quantitative pinpointing might strike some scholars as inaccurate, it needs to be understood that the triangular framework is an illustrative tool just as much as it is a tool for research. It is dominantly a tool to model post-communist regime trajectories, and if someone compares these trajectories visually they can get a good understanding of not just the development of each regime but (especially) in how these regime developments differed. Making the triangle more precise would eliminate its heuristic value, and we could not present the dimensions in a coherent matrix either. Whereas it is precisely that the framework shows the dimensions together what makes it an appropriate tool to convey the complexity of regimes that separate the spheres of political, market, and communal action to different degrees.


[1] For an overview, see Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde, “What Has Eastern Europe Taught Us about the Democratization Literature (and Vice Versa)?,” European Journal of Political Research 37, no. 4 (June 1, 2000): 517–39.

[2] Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 1 (0 2002): 5–21; Larry Diamond, “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002): 21.

[3] For an overview, see Andrea Cassani, “Hybrid What? Partial Consensus and Persistent Divergences in the Analysis of Hybrid Regimes,” International Political Science Review 35, no. 5 (0 1, 2014): 542–58.

[4] Claus Offe, “Political Corruption: Conceptual and Practical Issues,” in Building a Trustworthy State in Post-Socialist Transition, ed. János Kornai and Susan Rose-Ackerman, Political Evolution and Institutional Change (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2004), 77–99.

[5] Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968).

[6] Jon Elster, Claus Offe, and Ulrich K. Preuss, Institutional Design in Post-Communist Societies: Rebuilding the Ship at Sea (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[7] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[8] Peter J. Katzenstein, ed., Civilizations in World Politics: Plural and Pluralist Perspectives (London ; New York: Routledge, 2010).

[9] Jenő Szűcs, “The Three Historical Regions of Europe: An Outline,” Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 29, no. 2/4 (1983): 131–84.

[10] Andrey Ryabov, “The Institution of Power&Ownership in the Former U.S.S.R.: Origin, Diversity of Forms, and Influence on Transformation Processes,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 415–35.

[11] Oleksandr Fisun, “Neopatrimonialism in Post-Soviet Eurasia,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 75–96.

[12] János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[13] Henry E. Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[14] Bálint Magyar, “Towards a Terminology for Post-Communist Regimes,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 97–176.

[15] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[16] János Kornai, “The System Paradigm Revisited: Clarification and Additions in the Light Of Experiences in the Post-Communist Region,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 21–74.

[17] In our book, we define 11 dimensions, but here we elaborate only on a selection for the sake of brevity. For further discussion, see Bálint Magyar and Bálint Madlovics, The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2020).

[18] S. N. Eisenstadt and Louis Roniger, “Patron—Client Relations as a Model of Structuring Social Exchange,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, no. 1 (1980): 42–77.

[19] Hale, Patronal Politics, 9.

[20] Magyar, “Towards a Terminology for Post-Communist Regimes,” 114–27.

[21] Alena V. Ledeneva, The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality, vol. Volume 1 (UCL Press, 2018).

[22] Alena V. Ledeneva, Can Russia Modernise?: Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 30.

[23] Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018).

[24] Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class, 1st edition (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1984).

[25] Randall G. Holcombe, Political Capitalism: How Economic and Political Power Is Made and Maintained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[26] Ryabov, “The Institution of Power&Ownership in the Former U.S.S.R.”

[27] Karl Polányi, “The Economy as Instituted Process,” in The Sociology Of Economic Life, ed. Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), 29–51.

[28] Konstantin M. Simis, USSR: The Corrupt Society: The Secret World of Soviet Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).

[29] Diego Gambetta, “Corruption: An Analytical Map,” in Political Corruption in Transition: A Sceptic’s Handbook, ed. Stephen Kotkin and András Sajó (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2002), 33–56.

[30] Bálint Magyar, Aнатомия Посткоммунистического Мафиозного Государства – На Примере Венгрии (Moscow: New Literary Observer, 2016).

[31] Claudia Crawford, Boris Makarenko, and Nikolay Petrov, eds., Populism as a Common Challenge (Moscow: Political encyclopedia, 2018).

[32] János Kis, “State Neutrality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, ed. Michel Rosenfeld and András Sajó (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 318–35.

[33] Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits, Capitalist Diversity on Europe’s Periphery, 1 edition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 96–137.

[34] Vello Pettai and Pille Ivask, “Estonia,” Nations in Transit 2018 (Freedom House, 2018), https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/NIT2018_Estonia.pdf.

[35] László Nándor Magyari, “The Romanian Patronal System of Public Corruption,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 275–315.

[36] Hale, Patronal Politics, 139–41.

[37] Sebastian Heilmann, ed., China’s Political System (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

[38] For an overview, see Tom Gerald Daly, “Democratic Decay: Conceptualising an Emerging Research Field,” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, February 19, 2019.

[39] Alexander Dukalskis and Johannes Gerschewski, “What Autocracies Say (and What Citizens Hear): Proposing Four Mechanisms of Autocratic Legitimation,” Contemporary Politics 23, no. 3 (July 3, 2017): 251–68.

[40] Bálint Magyar, “Parallel System Narratives: Polish and Hungarian Regime Formations Compared,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 611–55.

[41] Seán Hanley and Milada Anna Vachudova, “Understanding the Illiberal Turn: Democratic Backsliding in the Czech Republic,” East European Politics 34, no. 3 (July 3, 2018): 276–96.

[42] Hale, Patronal Politics, 267–91.

[43] Magyar, Aнатомия Посткоммунистического Мафиозного Государства.

[44] Hale, Patronal Politics, 87–88.

[45] Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson, “After the Revolution,” Problems of Post-Communism 61, no. 4 (2014): 3–22.

[46] Kálmán Mizsei, “The New East European Patronal States and the Rule-of-Law,” in Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes, ed. Bálint Magyar (Budapest–New York: CEU Press, 2019), 531–610.

[47] Svend-Erik Skaaning, “Political Regimes and Their Changes: A Conceptual Framework” (Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law: Stanford University, 2006).

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