European dis-Union: lessons of the Soviet collapse

Europe's crisis is being felt at multiple levels, from the future of the eurozone and divisions between member-states to the rise of populist forces. But is the crisis likely to lead to the European Union's disintegration? The precedent of the Soviet collapse offers some lessons, says Ivan Krastev.

In 1992 the world woke up to find that the Soviet Union was no longer on the map. One of the world’s two superpowers had collapsed without a war, alien invasion or any other catastrophe. And it happened against all expectations. True, there was strong evidence to suggest that the Soviet system had been in irreversible decline since the 1970s, but this was anticipated to unfold over decades; nothing preordained its collapse as the climax of a "short 20th century".

In 1985, 1986 and even in 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was as inconceivable to contemporary analysts as the prospect of the European Union's disintegration is to experts today. The Soviet empire was too big to fail, too stable to collapse, had survived too much turbulence simply to implode.

But what a difference a decade can make! An outcome that was perceived as unthinkable in 1985 was declared inevitable in 1995. And it is exactly this twist of fate, this leap from the "unthinkable" to the "inevitable" that makes the Soviet disintegration experience a useful reference-point 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 much more than a rhetorical device - a toy monster used by scared politicians to enforce austerity on unhappy voters. It is not only European economies but European politics that are in turmoil. The financial crisis has sharply reduced the life-expectancy of governments, regardless of their political colour, and opened space for the rise of populist and protest parties. The public mood is best described as a combination of pessimism and anger.

This is reflected in the most recent "future of Europe" survey, funded by the European Commission and published in April 2012. It shows 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 of any ten Europeans believe that the lives of today's children will be more difficult than those of people from their own generation. Even more troubling, almost 90% of Europeans see a big gap between what the public wants and what governments do; only a third of Europeans feel that their vote counts at an EU level, and only 18% of Italians and 15% of Greeks consider their vote counts even in their own country.

Against this background, how unthinkable is the EU's disintegration? Here, Europe's capacity to learn from the Soviet precedent could play a crucial part. For the very survival of the EU may depend on its leaders' ability to manage the same mix of political, economic and psychological factors that were in play in the process of the Soviet collapse.

The Soviet order "collapsed like a house of cards", wrote the eminent historian Martin Malia, "because it had always been a house of cards". The EU is not a house of cards, and the great differences between the Soviet and the EU projects must always be kept in mind. But if the EU has never been seduced by the temptations of communism and central planning, it is not immune to the vices of complexity. It is the most sophisticated political puzzle known to history. The mid-19th-century codifier of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, attributed monarchy's strength to the fact that "it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it". The EU in contrast is an unintelligible government that the mass of Europeans cannot understand.

People across the EU cannot grasp how the union functions, and thus find it even more difficult to grasp what "the collapse of the union" would mean. In the case of the Soviet Union, collapse meant that a state disappeared from the map and a dozen new states came into being across a vast territory from north-central Asia to southeast Europe. But the EU is not a state, and even if it collapses nothing would change on the maps. Moreover, even if the EU disintegrates most (if not all) of the member-states will remain market democracies.

So, how can its disintegration be defined or conceptualised? Would the departure of at least one country from the eurozone, or from the union itself, amount to "disintegration"? Or would other trends be enough of an indicator: the decline of the EU’s global influence or the reversal of some major achievements of European integration (such as the free movement of people or the abolition of institutions such as the European court of justice)?  

The Soviet precedent

In answering these questions, the Soviet experience offers some useful lessons.

The first lesson is also a paradox: namely, the belief (backed by economists, and shared by Europe's political class) that the union cannot disintegrate is also one of the major risks of disintegration. The last years of the Soviet Union are the classic manifestation of this dynamic. The perception that is disintegration as "unthinkable" could tempt policymakers to embrace anti-EU policies or rhetoric for short-term advantage, in the belief that "nothing really bad can happen" in the long term.

But the EU's disintegration need not be the result of a victory by anti-EU forces over pro-EU forces; the Soviet experience is a potent warning to Europe that collapse can be the unintended consequence of the union's long-term dysfunctioning (or perceived dysfunctioning), compounded by the elites’ misreading of national political dynamics.

The respected historian Stephen Kotkin, reflecting on the disintegration of the Soviet Union, holds that the real question to be asked is: "why did the Soviet elite destroy its own system?" The process he analyses shows that the rise of anti-integration forces can be the outcome not the cause of collapse.

Moreover, the assessment of the disintegration risk should not be left to economists. who have a blind-spot when it comes to collapse. The Soviet case suggests that the fact that the economic costs of disintegration would be very high is not a reason for it not to happen. In this sense to believe that the EU cannot disintegrate simply because it is costly is a weak reassurance for the stability of the union.

The second lesson of the Soviet Union's demise is that misguided reforms - even more than the lack of reforms - can result in disintegration. It is during crises that politicians search for a "silver bullet", and quite often it is this bullet that is the cause of death. A central factor in the end of the Soviet system was Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to grasp its nature (by persisting in the illusion that it could be preserved without complete reform, and his misguided belief in its superiority).

The European Union and its member-states have their own history of efforts to produce a single brave policy that is meant to solve almost all of the union's problems. The idea of the referendums on the European constitution, which backfired so spectacularly in France and the Netherlands, is a reminder of the dangers of such a course of action.

The third lesson of the Soviet experience is that the major risk to the political project - in the absence of war or other extreme circumstances - comes not from destabilisation on the periphery but from the revolt at the centre (even if the crisis in the periphery can be infectious). It was Russia’s choice to get rid of the union rather than the Baltic republics' desire to run away from it that determined the fate of the Soviet state.

Today, it is Germany’s view of what is happening in the union that will more decisively affect the future of the European project than the troubles of Greece's or Spain's economy. When the "winners" of integration start to view themselves as its major victims, then it's certain that big trouble is imminent.

For the moment, Europeans do not have reasons to doubt Germany’s devotion to the EU; yet increasingly, the debt-ridden southern countries' horrifying inability to "translate" their concerns into German is matched by Germany's failure to "translate" her proposed solutions into the languages of most other member-states. And what is most worrying here is less the divergence of interests than the lack of empathy.

The fourth lesson is that if the dynamic of disintegration prevails, the result will look more like a "bank run" than a revolution. Thus, the most important factor affecting the chances of the union to survive is the trust of the elites in the capacity of the union to deal with its problems. In Kotkin’s apt observation on the Soviet case: "it was the central elite, rather than the independence movements of the periphery, that cashiered the Union".

Whereas people can be unhappy about Europe without revolting against it, national elites could abandon it from fear of losing control - and even at the moment they start questioning its prospects, their actions (by inciting general panic among those who fear they will be the last to ask for their money, as in bank runs) can contribute to its eventual collapse.

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 solutions intended to last (which, if and when they fail, can accelerate the momentum to disintegration). Unfortunately, at present, European decision-makers are trying to save the union via policy solutions that radically limit both national governments and the public's choices. So voters in countries like Italy and Greece can change governments, but they cannot change policies: economic decision-making is de facto removed from 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, and thus make the survival of the union more difficult. 

A decade ago, European decision-makers decided not to introduce any mechanism for a country to leave the common currency in order to make the break-up of the eurozone impossible. It is clear now that this decision makes the eurozone more vulnerable. In a similar manner the Soviets constructed their union with the idea to make it unbreakable but it was this very rigidity of the project that contributed to its falling apart.

The German poet-dissident Wolf Biermann wrote many years ago: "I can only love what I am also free to leave". Today's European policy-makers have forgotten this truth. By following inflexible policies that make the price of exit unbearably high, they are increasing rather than limiting risk. For in a major crisis - as, again, the Soviet collapse teaches - the popular response to "there is no alternative" can readily become - any alternative is better.

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About the author

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).

His latest books in English are "In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders", (TED Books, 2013); "The Anti-American Century", co-edited with Alan McPherson, (CEU Press, 2007) and "Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anticorruption" (CEU Press, 2004). He is a co-author with Steven Holmes of a forthcoming book on Russian politics.

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Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia; executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans ; permanent fellow of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Institute for Human Sciences / IWM) in Vienna; and a board member of the European Council on Foreign Affairs . He is the editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian edition of Foreign Policy and a frequent contributor to Transit - Europäische Revue (edited at the IWM)

His publications in English include: Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anti-Corruption (CEU Press, 2004); (co-editor, with Alina Mungiu-Pippidi) Nationalism after Communism: Lessons Learned   (CEU Press, 2004); and (co-editor, with Alan McPherson) The Anti-American Century (CEU Press, 2007)