Political Culture and Theorizing Post-Soviet Change: Latvia and Belarus

A review of The Effects of Political-Culture on Divergent Patterns of Post-Soviet Political-Economic Transformation: A Comparison of the Experiences of Latvia and Belarus Since 1991, by David James Meadows.

Accounting for the disparate political and economic paths that the Soviet successor states have followed since 1991 has been one of the great empirical puzzles of the late twentieth century. This dissertation by David James Meadows undertakes the impressive challenge of explaining divergent political-economic orientations in two post-Soviet countries in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse. Looking specifically at Latvia and Belarus in the two decades after independence, the author shows in his well-researched and thoroughly articulated dissertation that the very different domestic political-economic outcomes of these two states have been a function of separate worldviews shaped by distinct historical and cultural developments in previous eras. The dissertation further suggests that the longterm foreign policy trajectories of these two states in the post-Cold War period have been primarily influenced by these divergent political-cultural worldviews.

Rejecting a variety of theoretical archetypes in the International Relations, International Political Economy, and Comparative Politics literature, Meadows utilizes insights from Social Constructivist theory to ground an argument that prioritizes domestic cultural and historical factors over security, geopolitical, or economic explanations for divergence. Unlike other genres of contemporary scholarship such as Realism, Neoliberalism, globalization-focused critical theory, Systemic Constructivism, Historical Institutionalism, and Rational Institutionalism—all of which broadly ignore domestic political-cultural ideas as key explanatory variables—non-systemic Social Constructivist theory is alert to ways in which historical legacies, worldviews, ways of life, and historical memory at the state-level inform political-economic trends. This better captures the reality of the Latvian and Belarusian cases, since, as the author notes, both countries had large Russian troop presences on their soil, were in similar positions with regards to autonomy and alliance opportunities vis-à-vis the new Russian Federation, and were dependent on the Russian market for the majority of their trade. These similarities make more mainstream theories less satisfactory than non-systemic Social Constructivism in their explanatory power. This approach makes Meadows’s work a major contribution to the Political Science literature on political-culture-as-explanation in a field notoriously reticent when it comes to seeing culture as a primary causal factor determining political outcomes. The paucity of other recent work focusing on similar variables in the post-Soviet area studies subfield alone makes this dissertation a valuable addition.

Meadows tests two major hypotheses in his dissertation, namely: 1) “that the divergence in economic policies between Latvia and Belarus” is created by these states’ respective worldviews, which in turn shape Latvians’ and Belarusians’ “ideas, beliefs and preferences about modes of living, in regards to what constitutes proper political-economic organization of society and the legitimate role of the state in the economy” (p. 4); and 2) “that Latvia’s and Belarus’s divergent political-cultural worldviews are conditioned by each state’s differing historical legacies in terms of ways of life relating to religion, and the social organization of politics and economics” (ibid.). In essence, Latvia conducted liberal reforms because its political-culture was liberal-individualist, derived from historical experience and the culture that was built from this basis. Belarus avoided such reforms because its own political-culture was by nature collectivist, statist, and paternalistically authoritarian. In turn, religious divisions reinforced worldviews and conditioned visions of each state’s place in the world: Latvia’s conversion to Western Christianity and exposure to Lutheranism led it to associate with the West while Belarus’s membership in the Eastern Orthodox ecumene maintained it within the orbit of the greater Russian sphere.

After discussing the difficulties facing alternative theories in explaining the paired comparison of Latvian and Belarusian political-economic divergence, Meadows specifies the theoretical basis for his argument. To tie this divergence to fundamental differences in political-cultural worldviews, he employs a cultural theory derived from a path-dependent reading of Social Constructivism that follows in the footsteps of Max Weber, Thomas Luckmann, Pierre Bourdieu, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Robert Putnam, and Ted Hopf. This analysis also takes into account earlier work by Archie Brown and Stephen White that was dedicated specifically to the region in question during the Soviet period and stressed cultural explanations. Meadows’s theoretical model seeks to explain how worldviews—defined as the norms, rules, values, and beliefs that pervade society—in turn affect everyday ways of life and perceptions of legitimate forms of social organization, all of which are buttressed by historical memory. Ways of life can in turn affect worldviews via historical memory, and historical memory itself can crystallize both of the former two elements of this cultural pattern, thus extending their longevity. This creates a self-reinforcing circular dynamic that molds political-culture in a given society. Meadows conceptualizes the differences between Latvian and Belarusian worldviews as the basis for their ultimately opposing political and economic policy choices in the post-Soviet period.

Following his theoretical and methodological excursus, Meadows provides an extensive comparative summary and descriptive analysis of the differing policy choices of the two countries over the last twenty years of post-Soviet history, highlighting in detail the profound differences that justify the study in the first place. He points to notable variation in central bank independence, monetary policy and stability, privatization rate, industrial subsidies, broader regulation of the economy, and traditional liberal rights including individual freedoms, property rights, and rule of law as the major measurable elements of this differentiation. These differences specify and give weight to his dependent variable and the reason for this puzzle in the first place.

Two chapters are dedicated to each individual state, the first detailing the “the historical roots of [Latvia’s and Belarus’s] unique historical political-cultural worldviews, ways of life, and historical memories” (p. 55), and the second connecting these historical conditions to contemporary politics. The two chapters on Latvia provide a historical and cultural explanation accounting for worldviews and attitudes in favor of liberalizing reform and a Western orientation, while those on Belarus put forward a similar, deeply contextualized rationale for the anti-reformist and illiberal worldviews and attitudes of Belarusian society and government.

The dissertation concludes with remarks on its main argument, and expands the field of further analysis to include “other post-Communist, post-authoritarian, and post-colonial contexts” (p. 585). Additionally, Meadows articulates a series of policy implications drawn from his study. He concludes that prognostications on the rosy future of Western-style liberal democracy in Belarus will very possibly come up short in the face of an antagonistic political-culture. He recommends undertaking similarly framed research on other post-Soviet countries and the former Yugoslavia as an important avenue for future study.

In the course of his theoretical discussion, the author explains his choice to use a number of diverse techniques for reaching his conclusions. Approaches and sources providing the methodological and empirical justification for Meadows’s dissertation include: comparative historical analysis to trace path-dependent and contingent dynamics that shape culture over the longue durée; a thick descriptive approach to narrative to ensure that tight connections between historical events are maintained; process tracing of key agents that socialize political-cultural worldviews over time; utilization of public opinion polling from 1991 onward to show continued divergent value positions of the two states’ populations and the relative salience of national identity; examination of government reports, speeches, and other documents as well as media material to determine actors’ views and contemporary context; and interviews with government officials and other elites in order better to determine motivations and ideas. Ultimately, the predominantly qualitative focus of this dissertation enables it to probe the nuances of cultural dynamics and trends across centuries, which would be lost in a quantitative study.

The careful treatment that Meadows provides of the historical and cultural patterns informing contemporary political-economic paths of Latvia and Belarus is an important addition to debates within both the field of post-Soviet area studies as well as broader divides in the Political Science community over the relative weight of culture in political developments at both the international and domestic levels. This work will be of notable assistance to generalists seeking better to  understand the dynamics of political-culture and historical religious cleavages as they pertain to domestic and international outcomes, and also to specialists looking to capture more precisely the nature of such relations in post-Soviet space.

Julian G. Waller
Department of Political Science
The George Washington University
jgwaller@gwu.edu

Primary Bodies of Sources

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development databases
Centre for the Study of Public Policy surveys
World Values Surveys, 1990-2000
Eurobarometer Reports
Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies polls

Dissertation Information

Dalhousie University. 2012. 688 pp. Primary Advisor: Brian Bow.

Image: Photograph by the author.

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  1. Sardinius

    I particularly like the theoretical approach undertaken by Mr. Meadows to analyze patterns of political dynamics through diverse elements of national identity traits. I totally agree with his intellectual approach and I consequently appreciate pretty much Mr. Meadows findings on different patterns and peculiarities between Latvia and Bielorussia. One of the most interesting works made by a westerner that I have come across about Latvia, country of which I have a reasonable direct knowledge experience. Socially, Institutionally and culturally.

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