Today, August 19, marks 20 years since the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Although it could be argued that the USSR was already collapsing well before August 19, 1991, it’s also fair to say that the coup attempt by hardliners that took place on that day to preserve the Union ultimately hastened its collapse.
Why Did So Few Predict The Collapse Of The USSR?
The collapse of the USSR was undoubtedly one of the most important events of the 20th century, yet surprisingly few ‘experts’ predicted it. To explain this oversight is beyond the scope of this article, but one possible explanation is that the Soviet Union still seemed all-powerful, even amid economic weakness. The USSR had four million-strong armed forces and still had the military means (at least theoretically) to prevent its dissolution. In addition, none of the Soviet leaders favoured its break-up, and not all of the republics initially favoured independence. Furthermore, as late as August 1991, some sort of transformation of the USSR into a looser EU-style organisation (albeit without the Baltic states) was probably still possible.
At the end of the day, it would appear that the experts underestimated the ideological bankruptcy of the USSR – that by late 1991, there was no real political will to preserve it. As for the hawks in the West who had regarded the Soviet Union as more economically brittle than many analysts, it would appear that they overestimated the Kremlin’s willingness to use force, but at the same time they were so wedded to the USSR’s existence that they could not conceive of a world without it.
Thus, predictions of the Soviet collapse only came from the margins. One notable example was Donald James’ 1982 novel The Fall of the Russian Empire, which predicted with surprising accuracy the break-up of the USSR in 1987. In the novel, the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (who died in 1982) is succeeded by the octogenarian Mikhail Romanovsky, who rules for a period of three years. Romanovsky, a hardliner, dies suddenly, leading to a power struggle between the neo-Stalinist KGB chief, Semyon Kuba, and the more moderate First Secretary of the Russian Republic, Natalya Roginova. The struggle lasts more than a year, during which the Soviet presidency and Communist Party General-Secretary posts are left vacant. During this time, the economy is in a state of collapse. The agricultural system has failed, leading to food riots. There are oil shortages, and nationalist movements start brewing in constituent republics. Rioting surges in cities all across the Soviet Union. General Kuba attempts to consolidate his power, but the army is reluctant to interfere in domestic turmoil, and eventually Kuba is outmanoeuvred by Roginova. Armenia declares independence, and is quickly followed by Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and eventually the other republics. The United States and Europe cautiously accept this. The new Russian Republic maintains close ties with Belorussia and Ukraine, but renounces military interests in eastern Europe, over which it has lost dominance anyway. Interestingly, all these events happen just before Christmas, in the year 1987.
James did not get everything right. In his novel, thousands of prisoners from Russia’s gulags descend upon the cities, and the Soviet military is distracted by a new war between Hungary and Romania over Transylvania, and by a major military build-up by China at the Sino-Soviet border. At the end of the book, Russia signs a sweeping energy and investment pact with Japan, seemingly hinting that the latter country would be the next superpower. Nonetheless, James’ novel is still a remarkably prescient forecast. The point here is that fiction can sometimes offer greater foresight than traditional analysis, because novelists are not constrained by the same ‘laws’ as political scientists and economists. In other words, they can let their imaginations run wild – and sometimes come to the correct answer.
The Soviet Collapse Was Remarkably Peaceful
Overall, it was a miracle how peaceful the USSR’s collapse actually was, considering its sheer size (one-sixth of the world’s landmass), ethnic diversity (15 constituent ethnic republics and scores more ethnic groups), massive population (280mn people), and vast military (four million-strong with many thousands of nuclear weapons). Matters could easily have moved to a Eurasian civil war, especially since the Russian Empire had itself experienced a civil war in the early 20th century.
True, Georgia and Tajikistan succumbed to civil war while Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war in 1991-1994, and Russia had to fight two wars in the North Caucasus, but on the whole, things could have been a lot worse – as evidenced by civil wars in post-Tito Yugoslavia, post-Mobutu Democratic Republic of the Congo, and post-Saddam Iraq. Furthermore, the Soviet nuclear arsenal did not fall into the hands of terrorists or radical political leaders.
But Did The USSR Actually Break Up?
So far, I have accepted that the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. But did it? Russia’s brief invasion of Georgia in August 2008 demonstrated that it still regards much of the former Soviet space as its exclusive sphere of influence. To some degree, the USSR is returning, albeit in a much lighter form, with Russia leading a new drive to integrate some of its former republics with itself, in the spheres of economy, trade, and security.
For example, Russia has formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and in January 2012 this will be expanded into a ‘common economic space’ – essentially a single market of 165mn people. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have also expressed interest in joining it. On the security front, Russia has since 2002 been promoting the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as a Eurasian version of NATO. While the CSTO falls far short of this, it is still a means through which Moscow can seek dominance of the security arrangements of the former Soviet space. Most probably, Russia’s influence in its former satellites will linger for some time, as a legacy of centuries of Russian rule, and the sheer size of Russia’s economy relative to the other republics.
Authoritarianism Still Prevails, Even After 20 Years
Twenty years after the Soviet collapse, Russia is still not a Western-style liberal democracy. Although Boris Yeltsin often ruled in an autocratic manner, Russia made great democratic strides during his presidency (1991-1999), with many new political parties emerging, independent media flourishing, and political power being devolved to the regions through direct elections for presidents and governors. However, a combination of economic depression and a breakdown in law and order during the 1990s, the debt default of 1998, and Russia’s geopolitical humiliation by NATO’s war against Russian ally Serbia in 1999 all led to public demands for a stronger leader. This finally emerged in the form of Vladimir Putin from 1999. Putin clamped down on the free media, rescinded elections for regional leaders, and consolidated power under the dominant ‘United Russia’ party, which critics say increasingly resembles the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, as Putin is aged only 58, he is arguably young enough to rule Russia either as prime minister or president until 2024 (assuming two six-year terms starting in 2012), or possibly beyond (health-permitting). If he does last that long, then he will have demonstrated Russia’s inability to move beyond autocratic strongman rule.
Russia aside, authoritarianism still prevails to varying degrees in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Indeed, the Central Asian states are even less democratic than Russia, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are still led by their Soviet-era leaders. Thus, for the most part, the republics of the former Soviet Union have yet to make a transition to full democracy even 20 years after the USSR’s collapse. (For scenarios of how this might happen, read our long-term political forecasts for these individual countries on Business Monitor Online)
Russia Itself Is Still At Risk Of Eventual Break-Up
Although Russia has achieved robust economic growth under Putin, this has arguably been the result of high oil prices. When oil prices plummeted after July 2008, Russia’s economy experienced a severe recession. Thus, a major priority of Russia’s leaders is to diversify the economy away from the hydrocarbons sector – but this is a lot easier said than done. Although many will argue that rising Chinese, Indian, and other emerging market demand for oil will keep prices suitably high for decades to come, it would be risky for Russia to take this for granted. Thus, if Russia were to enter an extended period of lower oil prices, the economy would lose momentum, potentially increasing social instability.
A bigger risk for Russia is the ongoing Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, which began in Chechnya in the early 1990s but has since spread to neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia, and subsequently Kabardino-Balkaria. If the insurgency worsens, the Kremlin could lose control of the region, raising the possibility of a further break-up of Russia itself.
Furthermore, Russia’s shrinking population raises question marks about its ability to field a military big enough to defend the borders of such a vast country. There is a possibility that radical Islamist militants could sweep from Afghanistan through Central Asia into the Ural republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which already have distinct national identities from Russia proper. Finally, some Kremlin leaders are increasingly fearful that Chinese immigration into Russia’s Far Eastern and Siberian regions could eventually lead to a war in which Beijing sought to reacquire territories lost to Russia in 1858-1860.
Lessons For Other Mega-States
The collapse of the USSR offers lessons for other megastates. In the early 1990s, many eurosceptics wondered why European leaders were trying to create a new European superstate when the continent’s other superstate, the Soviet Union, had just dissolved. While there are massive differences between the EU/eurozone and the USSR, the contradictions of creating a single economic space encompassing two dozen nation states of varying economic development with hundreds of millions of people are increasingly apparent, thanks to the Greek, Irish, and Portuguese financial crises of 2010-2011. It is increasingly possible that the eurozone will not survive this decade .
China continues to resist democratisation, mainly because it fears following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union. China initiated economic liberalisation without political liberalisation, whereas the USSR initially did the opposite. While China lacks the ethnic diversity of the Soviet Union, because it is more than 90% Han Chinese, China still has several sizeable minorities, and there are separatist tendencies in Tibet and Xinjiang which could well increase over the coming years. Although China is unlikely to break up, there is little doubt that the country would experience increased instability if the Communist Party of China (CPC) started to falter.
India has greater ethnic and religious diversity than the USSR, but India’s democratic political system has largely kept various grievances in check. India’s federal states and territories also enjoy substantial autonomy from the central government, meaning that centrifugal forces have been contained. Thus, India is unlikely to follow in the Soviet Union’s footsteps.
Pakistan, too, has great diversity, and has become a highly fragmented state over the past decade. It is often said that Pakistan is an army with a country rather than the other way round. This is an oversimplification, but if Pakistan’s core province of Punjab fails to maintain control of other regions, then the country could be at risk of fragmentation.
Perhaps even the United States of America is not safe from centrifugal forces. Demographic changes within the US population, coupled with regionalisation of the American economy, could lead to separatist tendencies by 2050.