In 1992 the world woke up to find that the Soviet Union was no longer on the map. One of the worlds 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, and even in 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was as inconceivable to contemporary analysts as the prospect of the European Unions 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 present crisis has powerfully demonstrated that the risk of the disintegration of the EU is much more than 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. More than six of any ten Europeans believe that the lives of today's children will be more difficult compared with their own generation. Even more troubling, almost 90 percent of Europeans see a big gap between what the public wants and what governments do.
Against this background, how unthinkable is the disintegration of the EU? 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 during 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 understands it“. The EU in contrast is an unintelligible government that the mass of Europeans cannot understand.
What would „collapse“ mean? 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. But the EU is not a state, and even if it collapses nothing would change on the maps.
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 experience offers some useful lessons: The first is also a paradox: namely, the belief 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 disintegration is „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.
Blind-spot. 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 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 its own history of efforts to produce a single brave policy that is meant to solve almost all of its problems. The idea of the referendums on the European constitution that backfired so spectacularly in France and the Netherlands is a reminder of the dangers of such a course of action.
The third lesson is that the major risk to the political project comes not from destabilisation on the periphery but from the revolt at the centre. 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.
Lack of empathy. For the moment, Europeans have no 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. 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”.
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 enduring solutions (which, if and when they fail, can accelerate the momentum to disintegration). Unfortunately, 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. Ten years 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.
forscht am Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Wien. Zugleich leitet er das „Zentrum für liberale Strategien“ in Bulgariens Hauptstadt Sofia. Der studierte Philosoph (Universitäten Sofia und Oxford) beschäftigt sich mit einer großen Bandbreite an außen- und sicherheitspolitischen Themen, einer seiner Schwerpunkte liegt auf Südosteuropa.
("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 20.05.2012)