EurasiaNet, August 21, 2001

When the then colonies of European powers gained their independence in the decades after World War II, hopes were high that freed from the imperial yoke, they would rapidly achieve impressive social, economic and political progress and "modernization." These hopes were high not only in the former colonies themselves, but among sympathetic intellectuals in the "First World." They were especially high in the United States, which had encouraged decolonization, and stood ready to help the newly independent states with plentiful advice and rather less plentiful ? though still significant ? material aid.

This belief in the former colonies? progress was partly rooted in the natural belief that "because the existing system is bad, something better must take its place." In other words, so many aspects of colonial rule had been so dreadful. European colonial rule was usually both ruthlessly authoritarian and racist, with a brutal and ugly contempt for the cultures, traditions and languages of the colonized peoples. It often led to improvements in health, in education, and in standards of administration, but because the latter were imposed from above, from outside and according to alien traditions, they failed to take root or even developed strangely warped local forms. Most of the colonial economies were subordinated to the interests and plans of the imperial states ? which did admittedly lead in many areas to greatly improved transport and other infrastructure.

However, not only were the interests and wishes of the colonial populations utterly disregarded, but in many cases the economies were transformed into monocultures. Sometimes this led to a short-term increase in prosperity; but these economies ultimately proved dreadfully vulnerable to fluctuations in world commodity prices. In many areas, the creation or maintenance of these monocultures (whether agricultural or mineral) required the transplantation of huge numbers of workers of different ethnic groups, sometimes from the opposite side of the world. This inevitably created a legacy of ethnic problems, sometimes of appalling magnitude.

Forty years on, the development records of these former colonies is decidedly mixed. Some former colonies (above all, those of imperial Japan, plus a few city states and small islands) have prospered and advanced magnificently as part of the global market economy. A large majority have experienced both success and failure, with economic progress co-existing with continued deep poverty, and advances in state building co-existing with massive corruption, state weakness, and the temporary or permanent failure of democracy. Meanwhile a considerable minority, mainly, but not exclusively in Africa, have experienced not progress and modernization but catastrophic decline compared to their condition towards the end of colonial rule. In several areas, this was already apparent a decade or so after the end of colonial rule. Nonetheless, to draw attention to it in Western progressive circles was to draw counter-accusations of colonial nostalgia or worse.

In fact, as post-colonial governments have never ceased to point out, the colonial institutional, economic, ethnic and cultural legacy itself very often contributed critically to post-colonial failings. However, this cannot be used as an exclusive explanation, still less as an excuse for the frequently disastrous and unsavory behavior of the post-colonial elites. Post-colonial stagnation or decline has been usually the product of a symbiosis between the colonial legacy and certain pre-colonial local traditions. Together, these have worked to weaken the independent states and to undermine "modernization."

We should not need to wait another 20 years to start noticing and analyzing the similarities between this pattern and developments in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There too, while some countries, areas and groups have progressed greatly since the Soviet collapse, for a large majority the picture has been far more mixed; and in a number of cases, the decade since the end of the Soviet empire has seen severe and sometimes catastrophic decline and radical demodernization.

The modern sectors of the economy have decayed or collapsed. A large proportion ? in several countries, a large majority ? of the working population has been pushed out of the formal economy into the informal, gray or black economies. Partly as a consequence, the states? capacity to raise revenue from the economy has declined drastically. Modern public services have decayed, or collapsed altogether, from what was often a very high level by the standards of the developing world; state servants, instead of being paid regularly by the state, have taken to preying on the population; and states have lost the fundamental characteristic of a modern state, effective control of their territory and a monopoly of armed force.

That the populations of the Caucasus and Central Asia have not suffered even worse from the effects of economic decline has been due chiefly not to any action by the state, not indeed to any modern feature at all, but to the power and strength of the extended family, particularly when it comes to supporting old people and children. The way in which these family links work economically is often patronizingly dubbed a "survival mechanism" by Western economists, as if it were a temporary response to contingent circumstances. This is in fact an institution which predates not merely modernity but Christianity or Islam, and is supported by a tremendously ancient and deep ethic of loyalty and solidarity.

For where an effective extended family does exist, its members would feel it as an utter disgrace to see one of their old people starve or beg. If only one member of such a family group has a good job, even distant relatives will benefit to some degree. But of course, as everywhere else in the world where such ethics apply, they have a colossal downside as far as the interests of the state and of modernization are concerned. For they also mean that anyone with access to state funds will feel morally obliged to share them among his relatives, and give those relatives precedence in gaining state jobs. In any case where the interests of the state and those of the family clash, there is not much doubt which will win.

This clash of official state ethic and social ethic ? or between the pays legale and the pays reel ? is of course characteristic of much of the "developing world." In large parts of Latin America, for example, Guillermo O?Donnell has described how official laws and rules (to which everyone of course publicly pays lip service) co-exist with ? and are often subservient to ? a whole range of other "informal" laws centered on family, ethnicity, religion, criminal group or personal allegiance.

Of course, this is not to say that even the most currently decayed former Soviet republics will never achieve Western-style "modernization" and stable economic and political progress. That would indeed be an absurdly historicist or even racist position. What we must recognize however is that in many areas the obstacles to progress are at least as powerful, as deep-rooted and as complex as those in the former European colonies, and that they will therefore take as long to overcome. After all, the Philippines before independence were ruled not by an economically lunatic Communist totalitarianism, but by the United States; just as Pakistan and Nigeria were ruled by Britain, the first modern capitalist state with one of the oldest parliamentary systems in the world. Why on earth did we expect ex-Soviet Central Asia to do so much better?