A very well argued and incisive piece from one of the USSR’s best and brightest. Exclusively for Russia Insider.
In August 1991 Boris Pankin, then Ambassador to Prague, was the only high-ranking Soviet diplomat to denounce the attempted coup against Gorbachev. Subsequently Gorbachev appointed him Foreign Minister. After the breakup of the Soviet Union Yeltsin made him the first Russian Ambassador to the UK.
This paper was submitted to a Harvard University symposium held at Stockholm University on September 3, 2015 in Stockholm.
It was the USSR which liberated Europe at end of 80s, and for the 2nd time
The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was not an isolated phenomenon. It was a direct result of events which followed one after another in the course of perestroika in the USSR, since 1985.
It amounted to a denouncement of Brezhnev’s doctrine of limited sovereignty; to the dismantling of the Berlin wall, and to a refusal to support the communist regimes that led to their fall in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It led to the reunification of Germany, the dissolution of Comecon, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from German Democratic Republic (GDR), Poland and Hungary.
What is often forgotten is that it was radical domestic political reforms in the USSR that gave a start to it all.
All these grandiose social and political processes were begun and developed at the initiative of the Soviet side, more particularly, of the new leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This happened after three predecessors of Gorbachev had died one after the other.
If it were not for this initiative of the new Soviet political elite supported by the majority of the population of all constituent republics of the Soviet Union, the so called brotherly socialist commonwealth would continue to exist further, as well as the two German states. Soviet armies would have stood in Central and Eastern Europe, just as American troops are still stationed in Western Europe, and the Iron Curtain would still have been dividing the two worlds. And the Cold War would not have ended.
Russia did not lose in the Cold War.
There is one trivial understanding around, that all these great changes are nothing else but the West victory in the Cold War. Former US President George Bush Sr. even made an attempt to personify the phenomenon by saying that it was he who ended the Cold War.
Let me say that this claim has no ground whatsoever. Moreover, wide dissemination of this concept all over the world offended millions of people in the ex-USSR who had actively and energetically by word and in deed supported dismantling of the Communist regime. James Schlesinger was absolutely right when he stated, “[O]ur triumph in the Cold War has led to an arrogance of power in US dealings with the rest of the world.”
The phenomenon of Mikhail Gorbachev and his democratically minded colleagues who brought about the fall of totalitarianism, was the result of deep spiritual changes inside Soviet society.
The Soviet Union under Gorbachev was a democracy.
It is also incorrect, as is often the case, to name December, 1991 with its Belovezhskaya Pusha and disintegration of the USSR, as a reference point of changes in my country.
Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to have realized that Soviet system was on the verge of a profound crisis or rather catastrophe. The system, but not the country, let me emphasize.
Despite all his failures, Gorbachev cleared the ground for those who succeeded him.
By the time Yeltsin came to power in the sovereign Russian Federation, the basic political reforms, both internal and international had already been implemented in the USSR.
To a considerable extent, people could believe and read what they liked, speak what they liked, chose their way of life and of work and, above all, free do decide where to live. This opening to the outside world was perhaps the most important break with the past, as it created openness unknown in Russian history.
In other words Russians already enjoyed most civil rights.
Radical change of political and ideological map of Europe that I call the second liberation of Europe, was a common victory for us all, victory of democracy, freedom, humanity, of common sense after all.
The bitter fruit of victory.
The other thing is who used this historical victory for better or worse, and how they did so. I am afraid Russia’s post- Gorbachev leaders have not much to be proud of.
True, if not for Boris Yeltsin the country would have had few chances of quelling the August 1991 putch, a rebellion of the partocracy, KGB and stiff-necked generals. Boris Yeltsin’s speech on top of a tank in front of the White House was exactly the gesture the historical moment demanded. People in my country recall those days with tears in their eyes; it was a time when the whole nation seemed to be united against the threat of return of totalitarianism.
But after saving the country for democracy Yeltsin wished to impersonate the whole state. In order to get rid of Gorbachev as his superior, he decided to get rid of the Soviet Union (SU) as such. According to a recent Gorbachev interview (I am quoting), “The (Soviet) Union was destroyed against the will of the majority of the people and that was done absolutely deliberately by the Russian leadership, on the one hand, and the coup leaders, on the other.
It was the very communist model that went bankrupt, but not the Soviet Union as such,” – he continued. “The country could have been preserved if it had been decentralized and democratized in a timely manner. We were close to setting up a new foundation.”
Alas, struggle for democracy was substituted by the fight for independence.
Thus, for newly born Russia and other republics of the former SU it’s difficult to call the 1990s a successful transition. Especially, compared to what was happening in Central Europe, where a lot of countries adapted to democracy better.
The break in economic and cultural ties between the former Soviet republics has been accompanied by wars, terrorism, increased crime, unemployment, hyperinflation, primitive nationalism, chauvinism, extremism and separatism.
It is a paradox that the political imperatives to stand for democracy in the “struggle with communism” had suddenly revealed how deeply the authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies were ingrained in the reformist camp. Whatever you speak about – be it political or economic aspects of the transition.
The first Russian constitution (December 1993) and re-election of a democratic Boris Yeltsin as a President in 1996, virtually turned him into absolute monarch with little or no checks on his power. In other words he found himself at liberty to interpret the mandate of the voters as he wished.
To advance the arguments that I am going to develop further let me present one important conclusion:
To sum up, politicians both in the East, and in the West have appeared not to be up to those historical possibilities that have resulted from cardinal changes in the USSR and then in Central and Eastern Europe. They failed use them in full, and partly even have compromised them. The policy makers appeared not ready to recognize properly new risks, challenges and taboos, including ethnic and religious ones.
Vacuum of strategic thinking.
What we face today is not a vacuum of security, but a vacuum of strategic thinking.
After the Soviet regime and so called Socialist camp ceased to exist, geopolitical interests or rather appetites have been holding the stage.
Politicians and state leaders have abandoned the principles of new thinking (Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, then Gorbachev) and collective security (the Commission of Olof Palme with Soviet academician Georgy Arbatov as a member) that were extremely popular and effective in the days of perestroika.
They returned to the notorious slogan of English viscount Palmerston: we have no permanent friends and permanent enemies, we have just permanent interests.
Paradoxically, but the fact, that the euphoria, in which people in my country and abroad were bathing soon after the defeat of the August putsch of 1991, was soon replaced by more sour mood. Scepticism, disappointment, suspiciousness, thirst for revenge prevailed.
In other words – the era of mutual trust which has arisen during an epoch of perestroika and glasnost, was soon replaced by an era of mutual mistrust, and a calculation of former griefs and future suspicions.
Central and Eastern Europe proved ungrateful for their liberation by Russia.
Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that the tone was set by the countries of Central and the Eastern Europe, as well as by the Baltic States that have obtained independence and sovereignty thanks to the Second Liberation of Europe I mentioned above.
No nation can be free if it suppresses other nations. It was true said with regard to the annexation the Baltic Republics by the then USSR. It is also true in relation to the situation in the present Baltic States, first and foremost in Latvia and Estonia where Russian and other minorities had been officially deprived of some of their core civil rights. New ridiculous status was invented – non citizen. It appeared to have been nonsense when it was born. It is even more ridiculous 25 years after.
The fear, sincere or speculative, still exists that events could turn back. The aspiration to reach a so-called point of no-return as soon as possible dominated and dominates the world politics.
Internationally, dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in June 1991 appeared to have been not enough. An urge to join NATO, has arisen, as strong, as a draught in chimney.
More than that. To become a NATO member came to be regarded as not only expedient, but also prestigious. As a symbol and a sign of quality. A brand of belonging to the West. The very term neutrality started sounding as somewhat indecent. It was rather recently when Sweden helped Baltic States join EU. Now their leadership put Sweden and Finland to shame for not being in NATO.
Expansion of NATO: broken promises.
Meanwhile in the process of German unification we in the Soviet Union heard quite clear statements from the Western side that the military structure of Euro-Atlantic community, NATO, would never expand to the East.
I remember how in October 1991, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, one of the pillars of post-war German diplomacy, shared with me as Soviet Foreign Minister his and the US Secretary of State James A. Baker, idea.
They wanted to explore the possibility of setting up so called North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) that alongside NATO countries would comprise the USSR, the newly born independent Baltic States and the Eastern and Central European nations. They saw it as a substitute for NATO in the nearest future.
As a participant of the ceremony that dissolved the Warsaw Treaty Organisation I found this Genscher and Backer idea attractive. I have been convinced that the elimination of one military block would inexorably result in a drastic transformation of the other.
After some considerations Gorbachev was quick to give a go ahead to the Soviet participation in the military and political structure we were discussing and thus NACC was safely born.
But soon under the influence of so called New Europe, the Old West abandoned this idea and resorted to the Partnership for Peace which became just a next step towards NATO.
Promises given to Gorbachev, and, by the way, to me, not to move NATO’s infrastructure close to borders of the USSR – RF had been broken.
70 years ago when Europe lay in ruins and Stalin’s tyranny was in full swing, the USA came up with Marshall Plan. Now it came up with plans of NATO expansion.
True, it was the Russian leadership’s foreign and security policy which remained so chaotic and conceptually erratic that made its neighbors and partners uneasy. But would the enlargement of NATO serve as a panacea, or just a palliative?
A spiral of reactions and counter-reactions appeared to be endless.
But like a coin, expansion both of NATO and EU has two sides – the more some countries of Europe unite, the stronger others feel alienated, left out. An explosive mixture. The intensified cooperation among the EU countries should not entail marginalisation of others.
True, today’s confrontation in the world has no ideological accents, as it was before. At the same time religious, ethnic tensions became hundred times stronger. Nobody seems to accept neutrality
The pillars of a genuine partnership are common security, democracy, openness, political and economic cooperation, an expansion of trade and a functioning legal system.
All what I have said above would be right and make sense providing that all the parties then had been sincere, and believed what they preached. If not, if all the good intentions declared were nothing else but hypocrisy, we need a different framework to understand what was going on.