Some insights about legitimacy; a term incompatible with former communist countries?

When I think about legitimacy a bunch of words come up in our mind: state, power,
government, regime, sovereignty, law, freedom or democracy are just some of them. The so-called Father of Liberalism, John Locke, said that political legitimacy derives from popular explicit and implicit consent: “The argument of the Treatise is that the  government is not legitimate unless it is carried on with the consent of the governed[1].”
As we can see even more than 300 years ago Mr. Locke also associated legitimacy
with freedom and even power. But, how must that legitimate government be? Where does it have the power to rule on? Who will be responsible of controlling it? These questions links legitimacy with the words above stated: within a state–the organization that maintains the monopoly of violence over a territory[2] -it is defined a type of regime, which we can call democratic (and therefore legitimate in a vast majority of Western
culture) whether the right to decide who is governing prevails among the people.

Considering for example post-communist states, we can figure out the consequences of a transition to democracy; that is, towards a widely accepted and recognized regime (because the public chose it freely)[3]. Legitimacy creates power that relies not on coercion, but on consent. On the counter side, without legitimacy, a state would have to use continuous threat of force to maintain order -or expect that its rules and policies would go disregarded- which is exactly what the USSR did.

Young countries with little democratic experience are most of the times victims of corruption and attempts to accumulation of power by the new governments. As we shall see, democracy does not always play on benefit of the people. From the above-mentioned example of Hitler to the current government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela[4], democracy does not always imply justice or freedom. Something chosen by the people does not mean it is something good; people can also be wrong.

The cases of Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia are clear examples of corruption and accumulation of power. Coups are the daily menu in these democratically inexpert countries[5], but here with another ingredients make this country an interesting case study: racial and indepententist conflicts add up to a weak political institutions, making the combination really volatile. Are those independentist requirements substantiated? Where does the line must to be put in order to achieve peace? Should the government give in at any price? Is then a legitimate government the one elected by the people? What if you have so much influence among them that you can virtually made them vote you?

In areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova which where schooled by the Soviets pro-Russian sentiments predominated and continue to predominate. Consistent with Soviet ideology, communism is associated with technology, industry and progress. According to Daren and G.Busse (2008), even in the areas of Ukraine hit hardest by famine during collectivization, communism is credited with bringing the mechanization of agriculture, literacy, and progress. Indeed, surveys indicate that these areas are the most staunchly pro-Russian and most nostalgic for the Soviet system[6].

When you control the media, the education and even most part of the daily life of your  fellow citizens, any elections that you won cannot be considered legitimate, since
the people have not elected freely; they actually had little choice. Considering our three countries stated above, they have moved from a communist way of governing into a democratic way, but the control of the population has been so huge among the last years that now let them chose is even scary for the politicians.

Ukraine and Georgia share one critical aspects of their democratic breakthrough: the spark for regime change  was a fraudulent national election, not a war or an economic crisis. The legitimacy of the elected government was questioned and in both countries
elected presidents were deposed (Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004), and becoming
presidents the legitimate candidates.

The case of Armenia is different because that revolution has not arrived yet, and the legitimacy of the government still questioned. However, in last presidential elections
international community agreed that there was much more level of freedom than years before, which means that the legitimacy of the Armenian Government is increasing.

Considering which of those three countries is has a more legitimate regime we can see that all of them are approaching a fully legitimate one, while still some imperfections: all of the
current governments have been involved in non-democratic practices before being into power. In the case of Ukraine the current President Yanukovych was deposed in 2004 by Yushenko due to fraud in the elections. Actual government in Armenia was categorized as a “not fully democratic” by the 2007 World Report, due to lack of transparency in the elections. In Georgia, current president Saakashvili was one of the leaders of the coup that took out of power the last president[7]. That is, a great deal has been done but there is still great deal to do.


[1] Ashcraft, Richard (ed.): John Locke: Critical Assessments (p. 524). London: Routledge, 1991

[2] Definition of a state according to Max Weber (1864 –1920)

[3] Be aware that we are not identifying a legitimate government with a good  government; Hitler was elected democratically by the Germans, so at the beginning of his mandate he was actually legitimated to be Chancellor of Germany.

[4] In the last 12 years there have been 13 elections in Venezuela; every time Hugo Chavez wants to change something cannot change (due to power limitations) he calls elections and wait until “democracy talks”, usually in his favor (he controls approximately 80% of
the media, and uses them in his favor).

[5] It happened in other fully European countries also, such as the attempt of coup that Spain suffered in February 1981.

[6] In 1994, 81% of respondents in Ukraine and 88% in Belarus took a favorable view of Russia, and these figures were consistent throughout the 90’s. However, only 27 of respondents in Western Ukraine viewed Russia as an ally; Faranda (fn.55), 44.

[7]This may be considered as one of the three types of legitimacy that Max Weber
stated: charismatic legitimacy. Usually all revolutionary leaders possess a
certain magnetism who binds who they are to what they say. According to our
study this we do not consider this type of legitimacy as legitimacy itself,
because it usually falls apart the institutions. In this essay when we talk
about legitimacy we only consider rational-legal legitimacy as the one to be

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