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vladimir-gelman
Courtesy of University of Helsinki

The force that keeps post-Soviet states trapped in bad governance, known as “Good Soviet Union,” is equivalent to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” according to political science professor Vladimir Gel’man.

In a lecture on Tuesday, Gel’man discussed the causes and solutions to “bad governance” in post-Soviet states like Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Gel’man is a professor of political science and sociology at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia, and professor of Russian politics at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki.

According to Gel’man, bad governance is a norm among states, rather than an exception. He defined bad governance as the absence of governmental transparency, an underperforming economy, and the centralization of power into a vertical authority, which then extracts resources and money from the populace while dealing with internal struggles for power.

“People will usually engage in a high degree of corruption when faced with no constraints,” Gel’man explained.

According to Gel’man, although dictatorships are not inherently “bad,” autocratic states tend to have bad governance.

Bad governance has emerged in recent years due to various factors, but Gel’man noted that the bad governance now seen in Russia and other post-Soviet states is particularly encouraged by the concept of the “Good Soviet Union.”

The concept states that the former USSR provides a normative ideal to strive for. A false pretense of bygone “good old days” is used to legitimize policies that encourage bad governance.

“Good Soviet Union” according to Gel’man, is the functional equivalent of “Make America Great Again.”

“Nobody believes that these countries could be governed in a different way,” Gel’man said. “If you do not believe that bad governance can be overcome in the foreseeable future, you will just follow the preservation of the status quo.”

While democratization appears to be a viable option, examples like Moldova and Ukraine demonstrate that democracy may not improve governance — it merely shuffles around the existing people in power. 

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless, Gelman said.

He pointed to Estonia’s government, which restructured its state apparatus by bringing in young professionals and providing them with the high degree of social mobility needed to move the country away from bad governance. This same model was successfully implemented in Georgia.

Gel’man said that internal resolve within a nation can improve governance, but that international support alone will not fix the problem. 

The lecture, “Political Foundations of Post-Soviet Bad Governance,” was sponsored by the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. The panel was held in the Louis A. Simpson Building at 4:30 p.m.

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