An Eternal Ghost

25 march 2012

Why the Former Soviet Republics Failed to Solve the Problems Behind the Soviet Union’s Collapse

Kirill Koktysh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Theory at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: At this point the ambitious Eurasian project promising to unite Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus into a single economic space is not so much an attempt to generate an original economic model and, consequently, an economic strategy, but rather is an attempt to integrate into an intensive exchange of commodities between the EU and Asia by offering a shorter route for cargo shipments.

The twenty years that have passed since the break up of the Soviet Union is enough time to draw some conclusions. We can still think about whether a new quality has evolved and what its essence is, but it is time to give a clear and unambiguous answer to problems that once sparked a cycle of change, eventually resulting in the rise of a group of multiple entities now comprising the territory of the former Soviet Union. To ensure its own historical viability, each newly established state had to find solutions to problems that had paved the way for the Soviet Union’s collapse.

There were several fundamental problems that the Soviet Union failed to address: the first is vertical political mobility. A characteristic feature of Leonid Brezhnev’s stagnant rule was that it was practically impossible for the rank-and-file person – who did not belong to the upper echelons of the nomenklatura and who was not at least a second generation member of the group – to have a successful career. An individual’s talent, potential, and knowledge were of secondary importance and wielded little influence on his/her chances of having a successful career.

The second problem was the collapse of the Soviet Union as a national project. The de-legitimation of Soviet ideology, which was barely noticeable in the 1970s, but acquired huge significance during Gorbachev’s perestroika, simply deprived the party elite of any purpose for their political existence, since ideology had been the only meaningful justification for selecting members of the ruling class. Once the grounds for ideological legitimacy had vanished, the prerequisites were in place for the collapse of the Soviet system. For the new national elites, building a foundation for their own legitimacy became tantamount to their survival – in a far greater measure than resolving the problem of vertical political mobility.

The third challenge the Soviet Union failed to address was an efficient economic model. The Soviet economy, pegged to central planning, was unable to survive a fall in global oil prices. Once the inflow of foreign currency slowed, the disparity between the quality of life in the Soviet Union and in the West became quite evident. This factor affected the loyalty of the Soviet people and provided one more root cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is why the post-Soviet elites faced the task of re-launching stalled economic measures and began searching for new formats to plug their economies into the global economic system.

Finally, the fourth problem was the quality of the elite. The leadership during the final period of the Soviet era had a world vision that was too rigid for an in-depth understanding of the severe nature of the challenges the country faced. Therefore, the emergence of a ruling class with an adequate global vision that matched reality and was acceptable for society became a matter of historical survival. 

Vertical political Mobility

The problem of vertical mobility in the post-Soviet space has not been resolved. Leaders that came to power in 1991 repeated the mistakes of the previous system, under which they themselves had suffered and/or had fought against. In almost all post-Soviet states, competition for status is typically replaced with succession, hierarchies critical for the system are stagnant, and the creative forces of society are still not in demand or are marginalized.

Vertical mobility channels are “clogged up” in different ways in Central Asia, Russia, and the former Soviet Baltic republics. A series of ‘color’ revolutions that swept across many post-Soviet countries – as hard reality in some and as phantoms perceived by the government in others – is yet more proof that the problem persists.

If one analyzes the causes of the various revolutions that broke out in former Soviet countries – Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Georgia’s Rose Revolution, the two Tulip revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, revolts that stopped short of removing the regimes in Uzbekistan and Moldova, a peaceful yet tense standoff between the public and the authorities in Belarus, or the protest actions in Russia – one discovers that the prime cause of upheavals is stagnant political power, which prevents new generations of politicians from taking more or less decent positions in state government or business. As a result, pulling down the system looks more attractive and promising than playing fair when it is practically impossible to win.

Importantly, in practically all of the post-Soviet states the lack of vertical mobility is a legacy of the Soviet system. Beginning in the second half of the 1950s there was a lack of institutional tools in the Soviet Union for ensuring mobility. The outcome of this was that every twelve years on average (every generational cycle) the Soviet regime suffered a system fault. This would occur in certain spots, but would immediately trigger a campaign for putting things in order, i.e. elevating generational tensions in the entire system. The events in Hungary in 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 are only elements of the same logical chain in which every new generation launched an assault on the system because people did not see an opportunity for realizing their dreams. The climax came at the end of 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

It is noteworthy that the Orange Revolution followed the “Soviet schedule” almost exactly and took place in 2004, twelve years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This serves as a yet another reminder of the continuity and consistency of the Soviet political cycle in the territory of the former Soviet Union.

It may seem that the Baltic States stand somewhat apart in this context, as no “orange” sentiments are noticeable there. However, we should bear in mind that the problem of generational revolt was simply transformed into a problem of migration. Young people, seizing the opportunities offered by EU membership, opted to make money in the countries of Old Europe instead of sparking revolutions at home. The establishment of “social lifts” within the framework of social systems (and this is something that might provide a plausible solution) is not likely to happen. On the contrary, money sent home by those who have moved abroad has become an important part of the national revenues of all the three Baltic States. However, these countries have paid a high price through a considerable decrease in their capability for demographic reproduction.


The Legitimation of State Power or national Projects

A close look at post-Soviet countries shows that there has not been a single completed project that could unite the nation in order to achieve a long-term objective.

In Russia, federal officials have come up with quite a few fragmentary and non-systemic projects, each containing some kind of super idea. However, as these proposals have not been developed sufficiently, none of them could ensure systemic approval by the nation, yet each envisioned quite radical changes. The unpretentious assumption is that the practical implementation of each new idea would automatically transform the country into a markedly new modernized state. Furthermore, none of the ideas has had clear-cut formulas for implementation, which, to put it mildly, excessively widened the range of actions the authorities could pass off (and actually did pass off) as efforts to implement these proposals. The failure in the implementation of each such idea, which is practically inevitable in this type of situation, has meant that the failed idea is replaced by a new one, rather than rethinking the actual problem.

Russia went through: 1) a democratization project launched by Mikhail Gorbachev back in the Soviet era; 2) a market project supported by would-be President Boris Yeltsin at the very beginning of the 1990s in response to Gorbachev’s failed project; and 3) a project to restore order that was put on track by Vladimir Putin at the start of the 2000s in response to the collapse of Yeltsin’s market project. Each new initiative required less openness in public mobilization, which reached a static configuration – implying the public’s “silent support” – in the later years of Putin’s second term. Obviously, this explains why President Dmitry Medvedev’s innovation projects had a false start. His projects demanded an apparently greater degree of support than society was prepared to give at the time.

The recent mass street protests and return of public politics in Russia suggest the end of the cycle that lasted for the first twenty years of post-Soviet Russia. Furthermore, this also points to a transition either to a new cycle or to a new dimension. There is no need to provide complicated logical arguments to prove that protests over the legitimacy of elections are tokens of a new desire for democracy, but, in contrast to the Gorbachev version, these protests originated at the grassroots level, or within society, and were not planted from above.

The important thing is that all the aforementioned projects disregarded the country’s internal specificity. These projects were borrowed from the outside in order to make the situation in one or another area conform to external standards. This explains the fragmentary and non-systematic character of Russia’s modernization ideas. In essence, every time some aspect of reality was picked out haphazardly and appraised on the basis of its external features, the authorities ignored the context and sophisticated system of relations with all other aspects.

Other post-Soviet states were not original in this sense either. One can try and find some originality in projects traditional for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which suggest balancing between large neighbors, between the East and the West in the case of Eastern Europe, and between Russia and the Greater Asia in the case of Central Asia. However, the very fact that these are bordering projects implies that they are not original, since the relevant policies are possible only as reactions to the activity of more significant players. Such balancing can bring advantages in periods of growth, when an opportunity emerges to combine the strongest assets of each neighbor, yet it brings as many disadvantages in periods of decline, when the redoubling of benefits momentarily turns into the duplication of losses.

Today, in the absence of a meaningful Russian project, and while the European project is in crisis, the national projects of most post-Soviet countries are demonstrating a redoubling of their weaknesses.

For example, the Belarusian system has followed the full circle of change in its search to find a reliable base for legitimacy. The democratic project of 1994 gave way to the Belarusian-Russian project that continued to the beginning of the 2000s, when it was replaced by a pro-Belarusian project (or “for-Belarus,” as the official PR campaign presented it) which continued until 2006. At that time the system attempted to find the groundwork for legitimacy within its own economic layer, which is not self-sufficient per se. Next in line was a pro-European project that lasted from 2006 until the dispersal of a protest demonstration on December 19, 2010.

The circle closed and Belarus returned to where it started. The fact that the entire spectrum of values has been used up makes any further value-based legitimation of the regime quite unlikely.

The search for legitimacy in Ukraine has proven to be equally unsuccessful. Kiev traditionally balanced itself between the West and the East, but the size of Ukraine, which is much bigger than Belarus, meant that the results would be much less impressive. Neither Russia nor Europe is prepared to pay Ukrainian’s bills in full. The global economic crisis has frozen the situation and there are grave doubts that Russia or the EU will look for assets to spare for the Ukrainian project anytime soon. As a result, the current forcibly pro-Ukrainian project boils down to a simple centralization of resources in the hands of the ruling elite amid a general decline in Ukrainians’ earnings – a factor that cannot work towards the consolidation of legitimacy.

The balancing act that the Central Asian countries attempted along at least three vectors – the West vs. Russia, the West and Russia vs. Asia, and the Islamic world vs. the Christian world – has not produced any convincing results. By and large, none of the countries in the region have been able to break away from the paradigm of survival or to accumulate a reserve for independent development. The regimes have remained stable as a result of archaic features rather than through development. When compared with more developed neighbors, this situation is ripe for an explosion.

Georgia and Azerbaijan, which may look quite successful as national projects, are somewhat different from the others. However, Georgia’s story embodies an American project, not an authentic, national one. President Mikheil Saakashvili has succeeded in reproducing the achievements of Alexander Lukashenko’s early rule. The West has provided Saakashvili with resources comparable to what Lukashenko received from Russia in the mid-1990s. Georgia’s political reality has been noticeably transformed, yet just how steady that transformation has been will only be clear in time. For now, it would be premature to judge its viability. Moreover, in the case of Azerbaijan it is the availability of oil, which saved the Azerbaijani leadership the trouble of generating its own national project.

The Baltic States chose the European project as the groundwork for their own legitimacy, which was institutionally fixed by their accession to the EU quite rapidly and relegated the burden of legitimacy from the national elites to European structures. However, the ongoing European crisis has brought into question the solidity of the EU – if not the whole of it, than at least part of it. It is quite obvious that the EU’s search for a formula of its own legitimacy is far from over. Thus, the situation in the Baltic countries cannot be considered as conclusive in this sense.

All the post-Soviet states have pursued very similar economic strategies, which means in practically all cases inclusion in the world economy as sources of raw materials: a country supplies natural resources to the foreign market and gets hi-tech products in return. These processes have resulted in decline, since foreign assembly plants have replaced national hi-tech production facilities. Moreover, there has been a general downgrade in economic relationships. None of the post-Soviet states has the reserves to promulgate a long-term economic strategy today, neither at the level of government nor at the level of large economic entities.

An ambitious Eurasian project promising to unite Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus into a single economic space seems to be the exception today. However, at this point this project is not so much an attempt to generate an original economic model and, consequently, an economic strategy, but rather is an attempt to integrate into an intensive exchange of commodities between the EU and Asia by offering a shorter route for cargo shipments. In other words, even the Eurasian project appears to be little more than a modification of the same resource paradigm, even though it could be an opportunity to break out of its boundaries and construct a domestic market.


Elites: Their Quality and Vision of the World

The quality of elites has not seen any fundamental changes. The post-Soviet elites have a limited capability for independent action and do not have the intellectual capability to deal with the challenges they face. This is why they are prone to suspect foreign influence in situations that are undoubtedly the result of domestic factors.

The general lack of capability for independent action with regard to the BRIC (now transformed into BRICS) project offers a graphic illustration of the phenomenon that is typical of the post-Soviet elites. It is well known that the concept of BRIC, initially formulated by Goldman Sachs analysts, had limited advantages for the member-states of the virtual bloc. The analysts believed that these countries would become the most lucrative markets (not agents) by 2050. Moreover, self-identification as a market implies a certain loss of independence; the more restricted the ability of a state agent is to influence the market, the greater the freedom of investors playing on that market.

Quite remarkable in this context is the reaction of the Indian and Chinese elites to the emergence of this highly ambiguous concept, which was perceived as a challenge and stirred heated public debate. As a result, India and China produced their own concepts of BRIC on the basis of Goldman Sachs’s original formulation. These concepts fully reflected their national interests and envisioned a large enough degree of independent action, eventually becoming the building blocks of national policies. In Russia, public debate over the BRIC project did not go far beyond the pros and cons of the Goldman Sachs concept and did not come anywhere close to creative rethinking in line with Russia’s national interests.

The situation in all other post-Soviet countries is not any better in this area. Traditionally, their vision of the world is derivative of those construed by the Russian or European elites. Furthermore, such cognitive deficiency may play havoc amid the global economic crisis that requires skillful and efficient leadership during instability on the part of any viable state elite.

* * *

Thus, the disintegration of the Soviet Union did not result in independent action in former Soviet countries. On the contrary, the degree of independent action declined not only in Russia, but also in all other post-Soviet states. A drop in the general technological level has closed down entire industries and revived archaic social, economic, and political structures. The national elites have failed to lay the groundwork for their own long-term legitimacy, and their average cognitive capacity has dropped accordingly. The problem of vertical political mobility, which immediately imparts social stability, or instability, remains unresolved.

This leads to the conclusion that the processes of post-Soviet transformation are far from complete and further changes are inevitable.

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