As part of ECFR's Reinvention project, we are running a series of blog posts looking at particular thematic issues facing Europe as it attempts to deal with the financial crisis. In the fourth in this series, Ivan Krastev looks to the collapse of the Soviet empire for lessons.
In 1992 the world woke up without the Soviet Union on the map. One of the world’s two superpowers had collapsed in absence of war or an alien invasion or any other catastrophic development. Although the Soviets were in irreversible decline starting with the 1970s nothing has pre-determined their collapse at the end of the 20th century. In 1985, 1986 and even in 1989 the disintegration Soviet Union was so much unconceivable for the analysts of the day as the prospect for the EU disintegration is for the experts today. It is this leap from the “unthinkable” to the “inevitable” that makes Soviet disintegration experience a useful footnote in the current discussions on the future of the European crisis and the choices that European leaders face.
After all, the EU’s present crisis has powerfully demonstrated that the risk of the disintegration of the EU is not just a rhetorical device, a paper tiger used by scared politicians to enforce austerity on their unhappy voters. It is not only Europe's economies but European politics that is in turmoil. The public mood is best described as a combination of pessimism and anger: the latest Future of Europe survey suggests that while the majority of Europeans agree that the EU is a good place to live in their confidence in the economic performance of the Union and its capacity to play a major role in global politics has declined. More than six in any ten Europeans are convinced that the lives of those who are children today will be more difficult than the lives of people from their own generation. What is more troubling almost 90 percent of Europeans see a big gap between what the public wants and what the governments do. Only third of Europeans feel their vote counts in the EU and only 18 percent of Italians and 15 percent of Greeks feel that their vote counts even in their own country. So, how unthinkable is disintegration?
The Soviet order "collapsed like a house of cards"- wrote the eminent historian Martin Malia " because it has always been a house of cards". The EU is not a house of cards. While the EU was never seduced by the temptations of communism and central planning, it is not immune to the vices of complexity. The EU it is the most sophisticated political puzzle that history has known yet. The EU is unintelligible government that the mass of Europeans cannot understand. They cannot grasp how the Union function and it is even more difficult to grasp what the collapse of the Union means. In the case of the Soviet Union, collapse meant that a state disappeared from the maps and a dozen of new states came into being and it meant the end of the communist system. But the EU is not a state. If the project fails nothing would change on maps. And even if the EU disintegrates if not all at least most of the member states will remain market democracies. So, how can we define disintegration? Could we speak of disintegration if a country or two left the Eurozone or the Union itself? Is the end of the euro the end of the EU?
The Soviet experience suggests some useful hints in answering such questions.
Soviet collapse teaches us that the fact that the economic costs of disintegration would be very high is not a reason for it not to happen. The perception of the disintegration as "unthinkable" could encourage policy makers to try to push dangerous policy led by the belief that “nothing really bad can happen” in the long term while hoping that some anti-EU policies or rhetoric can be helpful in short term. The Soviet collapse is the most powerful demonstration that the disintegration of the EU does not need to be the result of the victory of the anti-EU forces over the pro-EU forces. If it happens most likely it will be the unintended consequence of the growing dysfunctionality of the system and elites’ misreading of the political dynamics in their own societies.
Soviet experience is also a powerful demonstration that misguided reforms even more than the lack of reforms can lead to disintegration. In a time of crisis politicians search for a “silver bullet” and quite often it is this bullet that causes the death. It was Gorbachev's failure to make sense of the nature of the Soviet system (it can be preserved but not reformed) and his misguided belief in the superiority of the socialist system that were at the root of the Soviet collapse. The idea of the referenda on the European Constitution that backfired so spectacularly in France and Netherland shows the danger in such a course of action.
The second lesson that comes from the analysis of the Soviet disintegration experience is that in the absence of war or other extreme circumstances, the major risk of the project is not the de-stabilisation of the periphery but the revolt of the centre. It was Russia’s decision to get rid of the Union and not the ever-present desire of the Baltic republics to run away from it that decided the fate of the Soviet state. And it is Germany’s view of what is happening in the Union that will more dramatically affect the future of the European project than the troubles of the Greek or Spanish economies. When the winners of integration start to view themselves as its major victims then politicians should be sure that the big trouble is around the corner. For the moment Europeans do not have reasons to doubt Germany’s devotion to the EU but at the same time we witness horrifying inability of the Southern debt-ridden countries to “translate” their concerns in German and a growing failure of Germany to “translate” her proposed solutions on the local languages of most of the other member states. And it is not the divergence of interests but the lack of empathy that should bother us most.
The third lesson is that if the dynamics of disintegration prevail, the collapse of the Union would look more like a "bank run" than a revolution. Paradoxically, the very fact that the EU was and to a great extent remains an elite project that determines the fact that the real risk for the survival of the EU comes not so much from the anger of the publics but from the calculations of the elites. At the very moment when national elites start questioning the future prospects of the Union, they will start acting in a way that contributes to its collapse. It is not people’s disappointment but elites’ trust in the capacity of the Union to deal with the problems that is the most important factor affecting the chances of the Union to survive.
The last and most disturbing lesson coming out of the study of Soviet collapse is that in times of threats of disintegration political actors should bet on flexibility and constrain their natural urge for rigidity and long lasting solutions. Unfortunately what we witness in Europe today is a drive for rigidity. In order to get out of the current status quo of policies without politics on the Brussels level and politics without policies on the national level, Germany among others favours a political constellation that can be best describe as “democracy without choices”. European decision makers are trying to save the Union by opting for policy solutions that tie the hands of national governments and radically constrain the choices of the public. Voters in countries like Italy and Greece can change governments but they cannot change policies: economic decision-making is de facto taken out of the electoral politics. The expectations are that the new politics of fiscal discipline will reduce political pressure on the EU. But while experts can agree or disagree with the pros and cons of the austerity policy package, what is more important is that the failure of rigidity will automatically accelerate the crisis, making the survival of the Union more difficult. Ten years ago, European decision makers decided not to introduce any mechanism for leaving the common currency. The goal was to make the break up of the Eurozone impossible, but now we know that it was this decision that makes it more vulnerable.
The German poet and dissident Wolf Biermann once wrote "I can only love, what I am also free to leave". The strategy of the European policy makers at the moment to favour policies that make the price of exit unbearably high instead of limiting risk can end up increasing them because what the Soviet collapse teaches us is that in the time of major crisis, the popular response to "there is no alternative" is that any alternative seems better. Paradoxically, flexibility is the best chance for survival.
Also in this series:
Tibor Dessewffy on populism in Hungary - "Leaders will play by EU rules only as long as their interests so dictate, and this is heightened by the sense that the crisis is sinking Europe as a whole"
Jean Pisani-Ferry on the economics of the crisis - "Germany is reluctant because both a banking union and Eurobonds can serve as channels for transfers. This is a legitimate concern"
Hans Eichel on Franco-German leadership - "Merkande must avoid making Merkozy’s mistake (due in particular to the French part of the tandem) of publicly presenting the other European partners with faits accomplis"
30th May 2012 at 11:05am
An excellent article! It does not give in to fatalistic mood through analogy, but still points out some major issues shared by complex political systems.
18th June 2012 at 04:06pm
The fact about the Ribbentrop pact is that in fact neither side execetpd it to last. Each side had their own reasons for signing it. Hitler wanted Russia to stay out of his hair while he dealt with Poland and Rumania and the rest of eastern Europe. Then it came in handy when France and Britain (totally unexecetpd to him) Got in it because of their pact with Poland. Stalin needed the pact to keep Germany out of his hair until the red army was ready to take on whoever won between Germany and France-Britain. A state he execetpd the red army to reach around 43 44
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