The Seven Traits of Troubled Transitions

Posted: December 27, 2014

The success of ISIS, or rather the failure of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, has prompted some to reassert that some cultures are not predisposed to democracy. But it’s more likely that the course of history has bestowed advantages upon certain countries.

Seven traits determine the success or failure of a transition to democracy, and history determines which of those traits are present. The more traits, the greater the likelihood of a violent and difficult transition. These traits explain why groups like ISIS will not be defeated easily.

Transitions since the collapse of communism provide a spectrum of examples, from least challenging, to more challenging to most challenging. The greatest determinant is the particular combination and number of traits.

Heterogeneous society – Countries with more diverse populations, whether ethnic or religious, have greater opportunities for conflict.

Lack of National Institutions – Societies with a tradition of loyalty to national governments and civic institutions fair better. Societies that resolve conflicts at a tribal level strip national governments of their power to mediate differences.

Destructive External Coercion – Outside influences have destructive consequences when other nation-states fight proxy wars within neighboring countries.

Natural Resources – While natural resources are often viewed as a blessing, more often they foster corruption and retard true economic development.

Lack of Cultural Readiness for Democracy – Elected leaders and the populations they govern need to understand democracy not just in theory, but in practice.

Societal Disruption – Societies that experience major disruptions often react in unpredictable and extreme ways.

Radicalization – Conditions that cause certain groups to feel threatened radicalize a population.

Today’s most volatile countries share some combination of these traits. Having worked in many transitioning countries, I have witnessed the effects these traits have had in their various combinations.

The “least challenging” category includes Hungary, which, prior to its transitions, was relatively homogenous and enjoyed functioning national institutions. It experienced relatively little social disruption, yet challenges existed. Cultural-readiness for democracy was lacking among the new elite. Hungary’s present Prime Minister was a college student during the 1989 collapse of communism. He garnered national attention after a speech in which he called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops and free elections.

Once elected he had difficulty coping with a free press and vocal opposition. Hungary recently received warnings from the European Union and U. S. for attempting to silence the media. The Hungarian government even moved to disregard all constitutional court rulings prior to 2012.  In a recent speech, the Prime Minister said he will abandon liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state,” citing Russia, Turkey and China as shining examples.

Cultural readiness is not isolated to leaders. I witnessed that citizens, when first viewing Parliamentary debates, failed to see a healthy exchange of ideas and instead saw evidence that the country was descending into chaos.

As tragic as Hungary’s transition appears, it is a relative success when compared to countries whose histories’ saddled them with additional traits.

A few more traits place counties such as Bosnia and Ukraine into the “Moderately Challenging” category. Despite being temporarily violent, these transitions are considered moderate due to the combination of traits involved which temporarily impeded peaceful conflict resolution.

In Bosnia, its heterogeneous nature was magnified when communism collapsed. A power vacuum was filled by ethnically motivated regional players which exposed the fragile nature of the former Yugoslav nation. Under Tito, a tradition of allegiance to a national government did exist, but still government documents were translated into multiple languages to extract cooperation between distinctly different ethnicities. When the West intervened militarily, with productive external coercion, the Dayton Peace Accords were realized. Due to no destructive external coercion, recent violence in Bosnia was not ethnically motivated, but driven by high unemployment.

In Ukraine, Russian pressure coupled with a heterogeneous population comprised partially of ethnic Russians continues to impede the transition. Russian meddling continues to incite rising tension and violence making a peaceful resolution more difficult.

In this moderately challenging category, the duration of the violence is relatively short and events stabilized to the point where a normal life can be reasonably expected. In the case of Ukraine, I anticipate it will be relatively short as Putin’s long term interests are not served by allowing tensions between Washington and Moscow to escalate to Cold War levels.

In the “most challenging” category I place countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. In these countries, many, if not all, traits are present and this will retard the ability for democracy to function for a long time. They have heterogeneous populations, suffered social disruption and endure coercion from external forces. They face cultural hurdles, possess natural resources, and are subject to high levels of corruption and radicalization. While Iraq had some semblance of national institutions, the other traits have diminished a national government’s ability to function. Afghanistan has never had a national government which functioned as such.

The combination of these traits overwhelmed the transition process in this category. The traits that caused these challenges developed over a long time and change will require time. The expectation of a quick transition is unrealistic regardless of the amount of support from the international community.

These traits will help us manage expectations of current transitions and prepare us for future ones. Many countries linger somewhere along the spectrum of least-to-most-challenging, including Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Haiti, Egypt, China, Iran, Venezuela and even Russia. Russians have experienced a turbulent and chaotic transition which makes them crave the structured world of their past. Today, Vladimir Putin enjoys an 84% approval rating. As I witnessed in similar situations, Russian voters yearned for a strong armed leader, and Putin is only too willing to comply. This will retard a truly competitive democracy and free society.

Policymakers have done a disservice to the public by creating the false expectation that free elections will create a peaceful democracy.  Instead, the traits discussed here, in their various combinations, will determine the success of a transition. Regarding places like Afghanistan and Iraq, what Bush did after invading those nations or how Obama has managed his foreign policy matters little.

The course of history matters more.

Daniel Odescalchi is President of Strategic Advantage International, a consulting firm. He has worked throughout the U.S., in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq and coauthored “The Handbook of Political Marketing.”