1991 and 2016: historic mistakes

What Brexit and the break-up of the USSR have (and do not have) in common. 

Jeremy Smith
30 June 2016
-Валентин Кузьмин TAss 1 december 1991 eltsti center (1).jpg

The Russian tricolour is raised over Moscow on 1 December, 1991. Photo: Valentin Kuzmin / ITAR-TASS. Some rights reserved.The feeling of overwhelming emptiness and despair I have experienced since the result of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union seems to be shared by pretty much all of my Facebook friends (especially the British ones) and, if the anti-Brexit media are anything to go by, a huge portion of those who supported staying in the EU. The decision to leave has had an immediate impact on financial markets, which were confident of a different outcome even after the polls closed. But the most depressing aspect is that the grounds on which this hugely consequential decision were made are looking more and more spurious.

One by one, the leaders of the pro-Leave campaign and the politicians likely to take us out of the EU have disowned the promises made in the campaign, especially on immigration and freedom of movement, but also on basic economic prospects. Leading pro-Brexit politicians have admitted that they have no plan for what follows Brexit. And tales of Leave voters regretting their votes, claiming not to have misunderstood the issues, or to have cast a protest vote in the firm belief that Leave would not win, may not be sufficient to account for the margin of victory. Nevertheless, they contribute to the general feeling that this is a case of democracy going terribly wrong.

One phrase springs immediately to mind to describe the situation: “historic mistake”. The phrase, of course, was used by Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2014 annexation of Crimea to describe the consequences of the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

The failed August 1991 coup turned out to be a tipping point in shifting opinion away from preservation of the USSR, just as last year’s refugee crisis in Europe

If one positive is to come from this, it is that people like myself can perhaps better understand the feelings that many Russians have about the events of the early 1990s, and which Putin and others have had success in exploiting. Such sentiments have usually been dismissed as propaganda or, to the extent that they are real emotions, as part of a post-imperial legacy for which we should have no sympathy and which Russian citizens should just get over.

It is true that Russia has no inherent right to regional domination just because of its past, any more than pro-EU Britons have any right to ignore the will of a majority of voters, however misplaced we deem their votes. But just as nationalism played an important role in both the break-up of the USSR and the Brexit result, understanding the sense of grievance and injustice that opponents of both outcomes have felt will go some way to explaining later political developments.

Dangerous times

While each of these historic events is unique, for all their differences there are striking parallels between the two.

Neither outcome was widely expected up until the moment they actually happened. Both were associated with dramatic shifts in popular sentiment linked to specific developments at a particular conjuncture of time. Political machinations played a role in allowing these irreversible decisions to take place — the referendum on EU membership only took place because David Cameron promised it as a way of outflanking Eurosceptics in last year’s General Election.

For the Soviet Union as a whole, there was little sentiment left for keeping the Union together by the end of 1991

For Cameron read Boris Yeltsin, who, according to most accounts, was ready to sacrifice the existence of the USSR for the sake of advantage in his own personal power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev. The failed August 1991 coup turned out to be a tipping point in shifting opinion away from preservation of the USSR, just as last year’s refugee crisis in Europe, however tenuous its relevance to Britain’s EU membership, seems to have been crucial to the referendum outcome.

In both cases, it appears that a perfect storm contributed to an outcome which, in the medium and long term, not many people really wanted and few stood to benefit from. Historic mistakes indeed.

Reversing decline

But there were important differences. David Cameron’s move was a gamble which went wrong, whereas the traditional view of Yeltsin’s actions is that they were calculated and deliberate.

This view has, in any case, been challenged by Serhii Ploky’s recent book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, which shows that Yeltsin initially opposed Ukrainian moves towards independence and sought to keep the Soviet Union together in some form before eventually coming to accept the break-up as inevitable.

It is also clear that, for the Soviet Union as a whole, there was little sentiment left for keeping the Union together by the end of 1991. It is difficult to find reactions comparable to those of pro-Europeans at the time of the breakup. The December 1991 referendum in Ukraine showed overwhelming support for independence and merely confirmed and legitimised a process that was already well in train.

While there was no equivalent referendum in Russia, only a hardline minority of the media and political establishment at the time mourned the end of the USSR in terms equivalent to the current mourning for the UK’s leaving the EU. There was no immediate equivalent in Russia to the growing incidence of racist and anti-immigrant actions and comments in the UK since the Brexit vote, although comparisons can be drawn with the anti-Caucasian sentiments which emerged over the following years.

The unpredictable forces of nationalism also seem to have played an important role. Thus the USSR, rather than collapsing suddenly at the end of 1991, decoupled issue by issue over the following three years

As far as can be told from perusing Russian newspapers in the early 1990s, a broader sense of loss was reserved for specific issues, notably Crimea. Crimea had already been raised as a bone of contention between post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine by Yeltsin at the end of August 1991, and the issue of its status, and that of the Black Sea Fleet, was hotly debated over the course of the next four years. The endurance of this sense of loss should not be underestimated, and those in the UK and elsewhere in Europe who are suffering a similar sense of loss after Brexit may now understand it a bit better. None of which legitimates military or other action to reclaim the peninsula, any more than a coup, or even a parliamentary vote, to prevent Brexit would be legitimate.

A further lesson to be drawn from the breakup of the USSR is that, even where there is a clear plan in place for a post-breakup order, outcomes were far from meeting expectations. Simultaneously with announcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Yeltsin together with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus issued the “Belavezha accords”, which included a clear statement of the future path of relations between those former Soviet republics that were ready to continue in a close relationship. Articles Four and Five of those accords guaranteed openness of boundaries, freedom of movement of citizens and transmission of information within the framework of cooperation.

Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were soon joined by the five Central Asian republics plus Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova in providing this agreement with an institutional framework in the form of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Over the next two months, the CIS issued dozens of agreements which elaborated on the general principles of Belavezha, promising a continuation of a single economic zone, widespread cooperation in education and research, a common security strategy, freedom of movement and open borders.

But by 1995, all of these visions had evaporated. Each post-Soviet state had its own currency, its own national defence force, its own economic strategy and its own version of the history of the region. Russia’s failure to provide adequate leadership, its distraction with the Chechen war, the collapse of the Russian economy, and the opening up of new opportunities for the other successor states, all contributed to this process.

But the unpredictable forces of nationalism also seem to have played an important role. Thus the USSR, rather than collapsing suddenly at the end of 1991, decoupled issue by issue over the following three years. The further impact this had on Russian sentiment was noted by a correspondent for Moskovskie novosti who complained in March 1995: “It is not hard to see that Russia’s influence in the Central Asian region is declining from year to year. Pushed out of the rouble zone and fenced in by customs posts and new borders, post-Soviet Asia is turning southward.”

The best intentions

This mismatch between expectations and realities may have the most important lessons for Brexit.

Leading Brexit campaigner and many people’s favourite to be the next British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s articulation of a vision for the new UK-Europe relationship promised, four days after the Brexit vote: “There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment. EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU.”

British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down. As the German equivalent of the CBI, the BDI, has very sensibly reminded us, there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.

The lessons from the break-up of the USSR are that any prognosis made today is unlikely to resemble the actual state of affairs a few years down the road

Even down to the emphasis on mobility, research and education, the similarities with the equally confident Belavezha accords are striking. In this respect, the lessons from the break-up of the USSR are that any such prognosis made today — by Johnson or, for that matter, the German BDI — is unlikely to resemble the actual state of affairs a few years down the road.

It took a further three and a half years for the USSR to fully decouple. In the case of Brexit, at least it is formally recognised that a similar period of time will be needed for its full implementation. By contrast, Brexit’s leading politicians seem to have no ideas to start with — unlike those who engineered the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The departure of Britain from the EU is an event without precedent, and for all of the differences, the breakup of the Soviet Union is perhaps the closest we can come to a recent parallel. The experience there might not do much more than give historical confirmation to Robert Burns’ well-known observation “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gang aft a-gley [often go off course].”

But a feature that the break-up and Brexit have in common is the often underestimated role of nationalism. While it contributed directly to Brexit, nationalism pulled in both directions in the decoupling of the USSR — for many non-Russians, nationalism was a key driver for leaving the Soviet Union, as it was for some Russians such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But for others, Russian nationalism meant maintaining its historic dominance over at least those parts of the near abroad that were inhabited largely by ethnic Russians.

History tells us never to underestimate nationalism, which is the mistake many of us made in placing our confidence in common sense winning out and securing a “remain” vote. That the forces of nationalism have been so rapidly unleashed both during and since the referendum reinforces the lesson that nothing about post-Brexit Britain and its relationship to Europe should be taken for granted.

What will Boris Johnson be saying about the direction of the UK and Europe in four years time? Or will his best-laid plans gang a-gley?

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