Three steps to freedom

Three steps to freedom

Branko Milanovic explores secessionism and the collapse of Communist federations.

Vladislav M. Zubok’s splendid “Collapse” is a chronicle of the break-up of the Soviet Union. It opens with the appointment of Yuri Andropov in 1985 and ends at Christmas 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation. In the quality of writing it reminded me of Richard Pipes’ “Russian Revolution”. In both books, the reader, of course, knows the final outcome, but the books are so skillfully written that at many key points one is almost left wondering about the path history will take. The author presents the reader with the knowledge that was in front of the actors at the time, not with a 20/20 knowledge of the events that followed. It thus helps the reader see the events as they unfold, and appreciate much better the decisions taken by the main actors.

Collapse-197x300.jpgIf I have one critique, it is that Zubok seldom passes judgments on the actors. But from the few cases when he does, handling at perfection irony and scathing comment, we know that he could do it, and surely well, more often. Perhaps Zubok decided to do it sparingly in order to underline that the book is an unbiased chronological review of the events. But, to give another precedent, Tacitus, in a similar chronology of dramatic history, does not shy away from judging actors with severity they deserve.

Although Zubok does not say so explicitly, the book allows us to see clearly how each of the Soviet republics followed an identical three-step approach to secession. This was not, I must say, novelty for me because I know the Soviet case rather well, having followed it closely and having read quite a lot on the collapse, and also having travelled and worked, for the World Bank, on the Soviet Union and later Russia. And in addition because the three step approach is exactly the same as followed by the Yugoslav republics in their (as was then euphemistically called) “disassociation” from each other.

The first step is the creation of an intellectual climate of national grievances, whether they have to do with language rights, service in the federal army, destruction of environment, or—the preferred approach—economic exploitation by other republics. That first step took years if not decades. It was performed almost exclusively by soft or hard nationalist dissidents. Soft dissidents were those like Valentin Rasputin in Russia, Dobrica Ćosić in Serbia, and Dimitrij Rupel in Slovenia. They were “soft” because their works were published, they enjoyed celebrity status (often making lots of money in the process), and they had strong, if not openly declared, following among the communist party structures of their republic. The “hard” dissidents were those like Solzhenitsyn who were jailed or exiled and whose works were not published.

The second step comes when these views from the political margin become  accepted by the leaderships of the republican communist parties. This indeed is  not possible without the simultaneous weakening of the center. In Yugoslavia, the disappearance of the center, the so-called “deconstruction” [demontaža in Serbian] of the federation began with the 1974 Constitution. In the Soviet Union, it started with Gorbachev’s counter-productive and ill-thought reforms.

Republican party leaders, often clever “political animals”, felt the center’s  power eroding. In a single party system where they have never ran for office, they needed an alternative claim to legitimacy. This is the point when the ideologies of resentment and grievance become useful. If people are unhappy with the current situation—the newly-minted nationalist leaders tell them—it is because the republic has been mercilessly exploited for years. The narrative was exactly the same across each of the Soviet or Yugoslav Republics. Baltics were exploited by Russia; Russia was exploited by everybody else because it provided cheap gas and oil; Ukraine was exploited because its food was sold for next to nothing; Kazakhstan was never sufficiently appreciated for its cotton production; Slovenia paid too much in taxes; Serbia’s food and electricity were underpriced; Croatia’s tourist revenues suffered from the overvaluation of the national currency.  In a non-market setting, everyone can assume that what they are producing should be sold at “world market” prices but everything they are buying should rightfully remain subsidized.

The leaders, until the day before all exemplary communists, now turn into nationalist heralds. Boris Yeltsin moves with ease from the party secretary in Sverdlovsk and Moscow to be the champion of free enterprise; Leonid Kravchuk, form a skillful Soviet manipulator to the defender of Ukrainian language (which he never spoke before); Heydar Aliev from a top KGB official arresting dissidents  to a believer in democracy; Slobodan Milošević, from a Communist party banker to the champion of Serbian rights; Milan Kučan, from a Communist party apparatchik to an appreciative reader of dissident literature. The path is almost perfect: everybody follows the same playbook.

The third step is a definitive break. The republican communist party which controls, at times in its entirety, the republican parliament decides that the republic will no longer observe federal laws when it deems them harmful to the republican interests. It seizes all federal assets on its territory, and either stops paying federal taxes or arbitrarily decides what it would pay. (Yeltsin negotiates on that with Gorbachev like in an Ottoman bazaar: “I’ll pay you 10%, okay, you ask, 15%, I will give you 12.5%, but not a penny more”.)

The enormity of such move is breathtaking. People in the former communist federations had grown used to it in the 1980s and such pronunciamentos were seen almost as normal. To understand what they mean, take today’s case of Catalonia or Scotland. It would mean that Catalonian/Scottish parliament unilaterally decides what legislations emanating from Madrid or London it will accept and what it will not. It would take control over the army units stationed in Catalonia/Scotland. All federal police forces on its territory will henceforth follow the orders from Barcelona or Edinburgh only. The police and army officers will be reappointed if loyal to the provincial government, or dismissed if otherwise. The provincial parliament would also take control of “public goods” like electricity generation and grids, railroad system, road infrastructure etc. It would cut taxes it pays to Madrid or London to whatever it deems fair, or to zero. And if necessary, it would, as the Baltic republics and Serbia have done in 1989, impose tariffs or embargoes on the goods coming from the rest of the country.

The deconstruction of the federation looks so far very neat—except for one thing: territorial disputes. Yeltsin, who was always supportive of Baltic secessionism, and in 90 out of 100 occasions, of Ukrainian independence, nevertheless issued, two days after the failed August 1991 coup and his de facto assumption of full powers, a statement that Russia will not accept arbitrary Lenin-drawn borders with Ukraine, saying that the new border should follow the exact line as defined by Putin in his February 2022 war speech and along which the war had been fought for two past years. Identical conflicts appeared in Azerbaijan/Armenia, Moldova, Georgia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. There were/are twelve wars on the territories of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia since 1989. All but one were wars about the borders.

Zubok’s book ends in December 1991 and it covers only a few of these wars. But the writing on the wall was very clear, the descent into war inevitable.

And one may wonder then: where is democracy in all of it? Democracy is purely ornamental. It is seen in nationalist light, as in a movement for self-determination and end of exploitation by others. National community is unique and unanimous. If not agreeing with unanimity, then a person cannot truly belong to the national community. These were, as I argued before in East European context more generally (and not only in the context of ethnic-based communist federations), revolutions of national—whether true or not—liberation, not democratic revolutions, as many observers liked to see them at the time. This lesson is, I believe, increasingly obvious today: wars and autocracies had made it plain.



This first appeared on Branko's blog

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