Autocratization in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Published in: Routledge Handbook of Autocratization, ed. by A. Croissant and L. Tomini

The current understanding and unchartered research paths of autocratization are documented in a new Handbook, published in May 2024. Covering Asia, North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, the volume presents in-depth explanations and a wealth of region-specific knowledge.

My chapter maps the scholarly discussion on autocratization processes in post-Soviet states. Autocratization is understood broadly, as a decline of democratic qualities that may be limited to changes within a political regime, but may also lead to a change of a given political regime. This dual notion of regime change is important for the post-Soviet region and its scholarship, as autocratization has occured while the question of what constitutes a political regime, that is, its values, norms and structures of authority, continue to be contested among political actors. read more

Legitimation Functions and Legitimacy Resources

A typology for the analysis of post-Soviet countries, presented at the Joint Bavarian-Russian Conference on Interdisciplinary Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bayreuth, 7-8 June 2018

Recent studies of legitimation patterns in authoritarian and democratic regimes have used a variety of classifications. Reviewing these approaches, I presented an integrative typology of legitimation functions and legitimacy resources based on David Beetham’s concept of political legitimacy.  According to Beetham, the legitimate exercise of power must conform to established rules, the rules need to be justifiable by reference to shared beliefs, and the given relations of power require the express consent of subordinates. read more

Prospects of a Dialogue on Kosovo

Interview with Aleksandra Nenadović, Voice of America, 26 July 2017

On 24 July 2017 Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić called for an “internal dialogue” on Kosovo. His article triggered an intense public debate and a large media echo within and beyond Serbia because he urged his fellow-citizens to face reality and stop waiting to be given “what we have lost a long time ago”.  Serbia should cease to preserve “a conflict whose meaning we do not understand” and should rather resolve the “Kosovo (Gordian) knot” in a responsible and non-violent way.

(c) Ivan Apostolski,

Vučić’s appeal has not indicated how such a solution could look like. In the interview, I argue that he is unlikely to recognize Kosovo and Metohija as an independent state because public opinion in Serbia, most citizens and especially Vučić’s electorate would not support such a decision.

Perhaps his main motive behind the call for an “internal dialogue” on Kosovo has been to strengthen Belgrade’s position during future talks with Priština about the implementation of the Brussels Agreement and the “normalization” of their relationship. A publicly manifested insistence on Kosovo being a part of Serbia would tie the hands of the government regarding EU claims for a de-facto or incremental recognition of Kosovo in the course of accession.

By refering to a supportive domestic public opinion, Serbia’s government could better defend its negotiation position vis-à-vis Brussels/Priština (similar to PM Orbán’s consultation on refugee issues in Hungary or PM Cameron’s Brexit referendum initiative in the UK). Moreover, an public consultation could also delineate the scope for permissible compromises during future normalization talks.

Rather than shifting the responsibility to others, Vučić’s call could be seen as a strategy to involve others in taking responsibility and explore the scope for concessions on Kosovo. Such a dialogue could work because Vučić’s core aims appear to be relatively modest – the main purpose of his initiative seems to be to survey public opinion and generate some resonance rather than crafting a consensus among the different positions.



Politics and Religion in Eastern Europe

An interview with Magda Crișan, Romanian TV program Digi24, 11 May 2016

Political elites in East European countries have often referred to religious beliefs or sought to form alliances with church leaders. One aim of their efforts has been to convince citizens and the public that they share common values and are committed to act ethically responsibly.

Putin_KyrillMore frequent references and appeals to shared religious beliefs in recent years reflect the growth of right-wing populism, uncertainties caused by the crisis of European integration and fears regarding the inflow of predominantly Muslim refugees. The extent to which religious references are made in political discourses also varies according to the strength of religious allegiances and the respective influence of churches in societies. Contemporary resonance structures are rooted in state identities and the influences of historical state-building coalitions with churches.

Read the full-length interview (Romanian language): INTERVIU_ReligionPolitics

Watch the video (German, Romanian subtitles):


Politische Legitimität

Sozialwissenschaftliche Diskussion und Herrschaftsressource im postsowjetischen Raum.

Gutachten für das Zentrum für Internationale und Osteuropastudien

Ziel der Studie ist es, den Stand der sozialwissenschaftlichen Forschung zu politischer Legitimität zusammenzufassen und zu analysieren, inwieweit Legitimationsstrategien politischer Eliten und Legitimitätsauffassungen in der Bevölkerung zur Stabilisierung politischer Regime in postsowjetischen Staaten beitragen. Die Studie ist in sechs Abschnitte gegliedert. read more

Politics and Legitimacy in Post-Soviet Eurasia

New Publication


Political legitimacy has become a scarce resource in Russia and other post-Soviet states in Eurasia. Their capacity to deliver prosperity has suffered from economic crisis, the conflict in Ukraine and the ensuing confrontation with the West. Will nationalism and repression enable political regimes to survive?

This book investigates the politics of legitimation in post-Soviet countries, focusing on how political and intellectual elites exploit different modes of legitimation. Combining cross-national comparisons and country case studies, it addresses state-economy relations, pro-presidential parties, courts, ideas of nationhood, historical and literary narratives. read more

Back to the Future?

Retrograde Modernization in Russia and the Post-Soviet Region

A Cross-Disciplinary Conference Organized by KomPost and the German Association for East European Studies (DGO), Berlin 23-24 October 2015

Levels of economic development, income and education provide a firm structural basis for democracy in Russia. However, an authoritarian model of government has prevailed and has even taken stronger hold of society in recent years. This trend is all the more puzzling since the political leadership has been less able to rely on economic growth to legitimize its rule. Governing elites are essentially confined to symbolic resources of legitimacy, such as historical grievances, threat perceptions, notions of exceptionalism and imperial identity.

In employing these resources, incumbent elites evoke ghosts of a past that appears to be more present now than during Russia’s departure for democracy in the 1990s or during the prosperous 2000s. Reviving the territorial thinking of the 19th and 20th century, Crimea’s incorporation is used to demonstrate Russia’s reconstitution as a great power. Novorossiya, a historical region annexed by Tsarist Russia, serves to establish a Russian claim on Ukrainian territory. Russia is framed as subject to Western “containment” strategies, borrowing from the terminological arsenal of the Cold War. In a romanticizing fashion, political representatives assume Russian culture to harbor and cherish traditional values that are deemed to be threatened by neglect and relativism in the West. The official rhetoric of economic reform resuscitates the idea of “import substitution” from the economic development agenda of the 1960s. Contemporary notions of “conservatory modernization” and “innovatization” are reminiscent of pseudo-reform discourses shaping the Brezhnev era.

The conference analyzed how political actors use references of the past to interpret and justify their policies. How do these references and quotations fit into the official frame of Russia as a non-Western civilization and an alternative to Western moral permissiveness? Can elements of what may be termed “retro-modernization” provide a viable ideology for authoritarian rule? What do we know about their appeal among Russian elites and in Russian society? How do critics of official discourses and policies relate to the appropriation and reactivation of traditions? How do neotraditionalist ideas resonate in other post-Soviet countries?

Drawing on work from the research network ‘Institutions and institutional change in Postsocialism’, the conference panels discussed ideas and strategies of retrograde modernization in discourses about the role of the state, economic policy and Russian culture.

Program: Retro_2015

Report (in German): Tagungsbericht

Symbolische Orientierungsleistungen und -erwartungen in postsowjetischen Gesellschaften

Workshop des Kompetenznetzes  „Institutionen und institutioneller Wandel im Postsozialismus“, München 21.-22.11.2014

Empirische Studien zur Politischen Kultur in Russland und anderen postsowjetischen Staaten haben beobachtet, dass politische Meinungen und Präferenzen stärker durch Wertvorstellungen geleitet werden als durch persönliche Alltagserfahrungen oder ökonomische Interessen. Dieses Phänomen wurde damit erklärt, dass viele Bürger/-innen die materiellen Konsequenzen ihrer Wahlentscheidungen nicht antizipieren können, da keine politischen Parteien mit kohärenten Programmen und klaren Handlungsalternativen existieren. Stattdessen dominiere die Polarität von Staatsmacht und Opposition. Nach dem Ende des staatssozialistischen Systems herrsche große Unsicherheit über gesellschaftliche und politische sowie nationale und moralische Leitbilder; zudem sei die politische Agenda durch Grundsatzfragen statt durch inkrementale Adjustierungen wie in den westlichen Demokratien geprägt.

Diese Erklärungsansätze legen die Vermutung nahe, dass instabile intermediäre Institutionen auch die politischen Eliten veranlassen, ihre öffentliche Kommunikation an Wertvorstellungen statt an pragmatischen Gesichtspunkten oder Zweckmäßigkeiten auszurichten. Die symbolischen Orientierungsleistungen der Eliten scheinen insofern mit den Orientierungserwartungen in der Bevölkerung verbunden.

Seit etwa 2012 lassen sich in Russland jedoch zwei Veränderungen feststellen. Zum einen formierte sich eine breite Protestbewegung, die von vielen Beobachtern als Repräsentation der neuen urbanen Mittelschichten bestimmt und damit als unterscheidbare gesellschaftliche Gruppe mit relativ homogenen Wertvorstellungen verortet wurde. Zum anderen bezog sich der russische Präsident in seinen programmatischen Reden in größerem Maße als früher auf die russische Nation, Tradition und Identität. In dieser Kontinuität wurde die Annexion der Krim als patriotischer Akt nationaler Gerechtigkeit dargestellt und von vielen befragten Russen/-innen begrüßt.

Vor diesem Hintergrund diskutierte der Workshop das Verhältnis von symbolischen Orientierungsleistungen und -erwartungen. Bezeichnen die Veränderungen seit 2012 das Ende der postsowjetischen Übergangszeit verunsicherter Leitbilder und die institutionelle Konsolidierung eines autoritären Regimes? Oder setzen sie die wertlastige Kommunikation fort, die schwache Institutionen ersetzte? Falls diese Kontinuität überwiegt, wie reflektieren konservativ-nationalistische Rhetorik und Politik die zunehmende Differenzierung und Pluralisierung der russischen Gesellschaft? Inwieweit reagieren der Präsident und die herrschende politische Elite auf veränderte Orientierungserwartungen in der Bevölkerung und inwieweit versuchen sie diese zu transformieren? Mit welchen Methoden lässt sich das Verhältnis von symbolischen Orientierungsleistungen und -erwartungen erforschen?


Authoritarian Governance in Eurasia: the Creation and Contestation of Institutional Legitimacy

Conference of the project network “Institutions and Institutional Change in Postsocialism”, 28-30 November 2013, Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung, and Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich

Eurasian states hold regular elections, but few political regimes in the region meet democratic standards. Non-democratic arrangements of governance have emerged and persisted despite the ‘color revolutions’ and their challenge to incumbents manipulating elections. This situation has generated significant scholarly interest and has resulted in a growing number of studies examining the sources of authoritarian stability. However, this field of research in the social sciences has hitherto been dominated by instrumentalist views of institutions that emphasize the engineering of institutions by utility-maximizing political actors. Institutions are sets of rules structuring interactions, but they are also defined by their legitimatory functions that are embedded in shared historical and cultural understandings. Due to this embeddedness, authoritarian rulers may not create political institutions at will. Rather, political elites depend on their ideational abilities to communicate their actions as meeting expectations of appropriateness. These abilities enable and constrain actors’ use of available frames, discourses, traditions, norms and practices in order to confer legitimacy on the institutions they seek to reform and build.

The envisaged workshop focuses on these legitimatory functions of institutions and the legitimation strategies of political actors in consolidating and contesting authoritarian governance: How do ruling political actors draw on the repertoire of legitimations available in a given national culture and history? How do they generate popular loyalty and elite-wide acceptance for institutions stabilizing their political authority, given that any authoritarian pretensions would be normatively unacceptable in public discourse? Sources of institutional legitimacy include culturally ingrained ideas of national identity, historical experience, constitutional rule, effective government, political leadership, economic development, but also the rituals of waging and solving social or political conflict. Ruling elites interpret these ideas in ways that link their particular institution-building projects to historically and culturally accepted practice.

The proposed focus on legitimation implies that political domination can not rely on coercion or repression alone, but also presupposes voluntary compliance of people or elite groups that is based on beliefs about legitimate authority. Since rulers can not enforce such compliance unilaterally, it is appropriate to conceive this process of claiming and granting legitimacy as ‘governance’, a term introduced to highlight the non-hierarchical and societal dimensions of governing. In accordance with this broader view, the workshop asks how institutional legitimacy is contested, eroded and destroyed. Which legitimatory strategies are chosen by protest and opposition actors and how have these strategies altered the symbolic political field of legitimation?

By linking institutional politics and change to culture and history, the workshop seeks to facilitate scholarly exchanges across disciplinary boundaries. In addition, the workshop intends to look beyond Eurasia and encourage comparisons with legitimatory struggles and authoritarian governance in other regions of the world.

Download program: Program_131130_pub

Contributions to the Conference have been published here.