Modern history

PART FOUR

After the Fall: 1989-2005

XX

A Fissile Continent

‘I don’t have to do anything to stop it; the Soviets will do it for me. They
will never allow this greater Germany just opposite them’.
François Mitterrand, November 28th 1989

‘When we started, we did not understand the depth of the problems
we faced’.
Mikhail Gorbachev, 1990

‘Our country has not been lucky. It was decided to carry out this
Marxist experiment on us. In the end we proved that there is no place
for this idea—it has simply pushed us off the path taken by the
world’s civilized countries’.
Boris Yeltsin, 1991

‘The existence of the Czech nation was never a certainty, and precisely this
uncertainty constitutes its most striking aspect’.
Milan Kundera

Liberated from Communism, eastern Europe underwent a second and even more striking transformation. In the course of the 1990s four established states disappeared from the map of the continent and fourteen countries were born—or resuscitated. The six westernmost republics of the Soviet Union—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova—became independent states, together with Russia itself. Czechoslovakia became two separate countries—Slovakia and the Czech Republic. And Yugoslavia broke apart into its constituent units: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro and Macedonia.

This making and breaking of nations was comparable in scale to the impact of the Versailles treaties that followed World War One—and in certain respects more dramatic. The emergence of nation-states at Versailles was the culmination of a long drawn-out process with its roots in the mid-nineteenth century or before; it came as no surprise. But the prospect of something similar occurring in the late twentieth century was anticipated by almost no-one. Indeed, three states that were to disappear in the course of the 1990s—Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR—were themselves of post-1918 vintage.

It is not, however, a coincidence that these were the last remaining multi-ethnic, federal states in the region. The territorial fission of the Nineties accompanied the extinction of the last of Europe’s four continental empires—that of Russia. It was, in effect, a delayed epilogue to the post-imperial state-making that had followed the fall of the other three: Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria and Wilhelmine Germany. But the logic of imperial break-up would not in itself have triggered the institutional re-arrangement of Eastern Europe. As so often in the past, the fate of the region was determined by events in Germany.

Credit for German re-unification—a unique case of fusion in a decade of fission—must go in the first instance to Helmut Kohl. The West German Chancellor was initially as hesitant as everyone else—on November 28th 1989 he presented to the Bundestag a five-year program of cautious steps toward German unity. But after listening to East German crowds (and assuring himself of the support of Washington) Kohl calculated that a unified Germany was now not merely possible but perhaps urgent. It was clear that the only way to staunch the flow west (2,000 people a day at one point) was to bring West Germany east. In order to keep East Germans from leaving their country, the West German leader set about abolishing it.

As in the 19th century, German unification was in the first instance to be achieved by a currency union; but political union inevitably followed. Talk of a ‘confederation’, which the West Germans had initially encouraged and Hans Modrow’s GDR cabinet had eagerly pursued, was precipitately dropped and in the hastily called East German elections of March 1990 Christian Democrat candidates ran on a unification ticket. Their ‘Alliance for Germany’ won 48 percent of the vote: the Social Democrats, handicapped by their well-advertised ambivalence on the subject, won just 22 percent.303 The former Communists—now the Party of Democratic Socialism—secured a respectable 16 percent showing; but Alliance ’90, a coalition of former dissidents including Bärbel Bohley’sNeues Forum, won just 2.8 percent.304

The first act of the new majority in the GDR Volkskammer, represented by a CDU-SPD-Liberal coalition led by Lothar de Maizière, was to commit their country to German unity.305 On May 18th 1990 a ‘monetary, economic and social union’ was signed between the two Germanies, and on July 1st its crucial clause—the extension of the Deutschmark to East Germany—came into force. East Germans could now exchange their virtually useless East German marks—up to the equivalent of DM 40,000—at a hugely advantageous rate of 1:1. Wages and salaries in the GDR would henceforth be paid in Deutschmarks at parity—a dramatically effective device for keeping East Germans where they were, but with grim long-term consequences for East German jobs and the West German budget.

On August 23rd, by pre-agreement with Bonn, the Volkskammer voted to accede to the Federal Republic. A week later a Treaty of Unification was signed, by which the GDR was absorbed into the FRG—as approved by its voters in the March elections and permitted under Article 23 of the 1949 Basic Law. On October 3rd the Treaty entered into force: the GDR ‘acceded’ to the Federal Republic and ceased to exist.

The division of Germany had been the work of the victors of World War Two and its reunification in 1990 would never have come about without their encouragement or consent. East Germany was a Soviet satellite state, with 360,000 Soviet troops still stationed there in 1989. West Germany, for all its independence, was not free to act autonomously on this matter. As for Berlin, until a final peace settlement was reached it remained a city whose fate formally depended upon the original occupying powers—France, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union.

Neither the British nor the French were in any particular hurry to see Germany reunited. To the extent that West Europeans even thought about a unified Germany they assumed—reasonably enough—that it would come at the end of a long process of change in Eastern Europe, not right at the outset. As Douglas Hurd (the British foreign secretary) observed in December 1989, reflecting on the imminent conclusion of the Cold War: This was ‘a system . . . under which we’ve lived quite happily for forty years.’

His Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made no secret of her fears. In her memoirs she recalls a hastily convoked meeting with French President Mitterrand: ‘I produced from my handbag a map showing the various configurations of Germany in the past, which were not altogether reassuring about the future . . . [Mitterrand] said that at moments of great danger in the past France had always established special relations with Britain and he felt such a time had come again . . . It seemed to me that although we had not discovered the means, at least we both had the will to check the German juggernaut. That was a start.’

Mrs Thatcher—and she was not alone—was also worried that German unification might de-stabilize Mikhail Gorbachev, possibly even leading to his fall (by analogy with Nikita Khrushchev’s disgrace following his Cuban humiliation). But the British, for all their anxieties, had nothing to offer by way of an alternative to the course of events then unfolding in Germany and they duly acquiesced. Mitterrand was not so easily appeased. More than anyone else, the French were truly disturbed by the collapse of the stable and familiar arrangements in Germany and in the Communist bloc as a whole.306

The first reaction from Paris was to try and block any move to German unification—Mitterrand even going so far as to visit the GDR in December 1989 in a show of support for its sovereignty. He declined Helmut Kohl’s invitation to attend a ceremony to mark the re-opening of the Brandenburg Gate, and tried to convince Soviet leaders that, as traditional allies, France and Russia had a common interest in blocking German ambitions. Indeed, the French were banking on Gorbachev to veto German unity—as Mitterrand explained to his advisers on November 28th 1989, ‘I don’t have to do anything to stop it, the Soviets will do it for me. They will never allow this greater Germany just opposite them.’

But once it became clear that this was not so—and following Kohl’s decisive victory in the East German elections—the French President adopted a different tack. The Germans could have their unity, but at a price. There must be no question of an enhanced Germany taking an independent path, much less reverting to its old middle-European priorities. Kohl must commit himself to pursuing the European project under a Franco-German condominium, and Germany was to be bound into an ‘ever-closer’ union—whose terms, notably a common European currency, would be enshrined in a new treaty (to be negotiated the following year in the Dutch city of Maastricht)307.

The Germans agreed readily enough to all the French conditions (though the maladroit character of France’s diplomatic maneuvers chilled relations for a while)—an echo of earlier days, when Bonn agreed after 1955 to confine ‘Europe’ to the original six countries in order to assuage French anxiety over the restoration of full sovereignty to Germany. Kohl even concurred in the coming months over a range of minor concessions designed to reward Paris for its forbearance.308 Unification was well worth some appeasement of Germany’s nervous European neighbours. In any case Kohl—born in Ludwigshafen and like his fellow Rhinelander Adenauer instinctively disposed to look west—was not unduly troubled at the idea of tying Germany ever more closely to the European Community.

But most important of all, the German Chancellor had the wind in his sails, as any contemporary photograph of him will confirm: German unification had the full backing of the United States. Like everyone else, the administration of President George Bush initially supposed along with its allies that German unification could only come at the end of the series of unpredictable changes unfolding in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and then only with Soviet consent. But Washington was quicker to catch the prevailing mood, especially after a February 1990 poll showed that 58 percent of West Germans favored a united and neutral Germany. This was the very outcome the US (and many West German politicians) feared most: an enlarged Germany, neutral and unattached in the middle of Europe, destabilizing and unsettling its neighbours on both sides.

The US thus committed itself wholeheartedly to support for Kohl’s objectives, to ensure that Germans were never required to choose between unity and the Western alliance. Under pressure from Washington, the French and British accordingly agreed to sit down with the Soviet Union and representatives of the two Germanies and thrash out the terms of the emergence of a new Germany. These so-called ‘4+2’ talks, conducted by foreign ministers from February to September 1990, culminated in a Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed in Moscow on September 12th.

With this treaty, which formally recognized the borders of a future Germany as those of the two present German states, the four-power status of Berlin was brought to an end, expiring at midnight on October 2nd 1990. The Soviet Union agreed to allow a united Germany to remain in NATO, and terms were reached for the withdrawal of the Red Army and the departure of all foreign troops from Berlin (to be completed four years hence, after which only a small complement of NATO troops would remain on German soil).

Why did Mikhail Gorbachev so readily allow German unification to go forward? For decades the Soviet Union’s primary strategic objective had been to maintain the territorial status quo in central Europe: Moscow—like London, Paris and Washington—had become comfortable with a divided Germany and had long since abandoned Stalin’s post-war goal of extricating Bonn from the Western alliance. And unlike the French and the British, the Soviet leadership was still in a position to block the process of unification, at least in principle.

Gorbachev, like everyone else in 1990, was flying blind. No-one, in East or West, had a plan telling them what to do if the GDR disintegrated; and there were no blueprints for German unification. But the Soviet leader, unlike his western counterparts, had no good options. He could not realistically hope to prevent German unity except by reversing his benign public announcements of recent years and seriously damaging his own credibility. He did initially oppose the absorption of a united Germany into NATO; and even after conceding the point in principle309 continued to insist that NATO troops not be allowed to move 300 kilometers east to the Polish border—something US Secretary of State James Baker actually promised to his Soviet counterpart in February 1990. But when that promise was later broken Gorbachev was helpless to intervene.

What he was able to do was extract, quite literally, a price for his concessions. As the West German Chancellor had foreseen, the USSR was open to financial persuasion. Gorbachev tried at first to hold the unification negotiations hostage for a ransom of $20 billion, before finally settling for approximately $8 billion, together with some $2 billion more in interest-free credits. Overall, from 1990 through 1994, Bonn transferred to the Soviet Union (and latterly Russia) the equivalent of $71 billion (with a further $36 billion going to the former Communist states of Eastern Europe). Helmut Kohl also agreed to alleviate Soviet (and Polish) fears of German irredentism by pledging, as we have seen, to accept as permanent his country’s eastern boundaries, a commitment enshrined the following year in a Treaty with Poland.

Having secured the best terms it could, Moscow agreed to abandon the GDR. Playing Sidney Greenstreet to Washington’s Bogart, the Soviet Union made the best of a bad hand and relinquished its diminutive, resentful East German sidekick with the requisite protestation but few real regrets. It made more sense to build a strategic relationship with a friendly and appreciative new Germany than to make an enemy of it, and from the Soviet perspective a united Germany, firmly grasped—and contained—in the Western embrace, was not such a bad outcome.

The GDR was not much loved. But it did not pass entirely unlamented. In addition to West German intellectuals like Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas who feared for the soul of a reunited ‘greater’ Germany310, many East Germans who had known no other homeland had mixed feelings when ‘their’ Germany was swept away from under them. Two generations had grown up in the GDR. They might not have believed its more egregiously absurd self-descriptions, but they could not be entirely deaf to official propaganda. We should not be surprised to learn that long after 1989 children in eastern German secondary schools continued to believe that East German troops had fought alongside the Red Army to liberate their country from Hitler.

This inculcated misperception was part of the GDR’s core identity and did nothing to ease its disoriented former citizens’ transition ‘back’ into Germany, particularly as ‘their’ Germany was systematically excised from the official record. The names of towns, streets, buildings and counties were changed, often reverting to pre-1933 usage. Rituals and memorials were restored. This was not the recovery of history, however, but rather its erasure—it was as though the GDR had never been. When Erich Mielke was prosecuted and sentenced for murder it was not for crimes he authorized as head of the Stasi but rather for a political assassination committed in the 1930s, the evidence provided by Nazi interrogation records.

Rather than engage the GDR’s troubled history, in other words, its former subjects were encouraged to forget it—an ironic replay of West Germany’s own age of forgetting in the Fifties. And as in the early years of the Federal Republic, so after 1989: prosperity was to be the answer. Germany would buy its way out of history. To be sure, the GDR was a decidedly suitable case for treatment. It was not just its institutions that were falling apart—much of its material infrastructure was decrepit. Two dwellings in five were built before 1914 (in West Germany in 1989 the figure was less than one in five); a quarter of all houses lacked a bath, one third had only an outdoor toilet, and more than 60 percent lacked any form of central heating.

As in its dealings with Moscow, Bonn’s response was to throw very large sums of money at the problem. In the three years following unification total transfers from Western into Eastern Germany amounted to the equivalent of 1,200 billion euros; by the end of 2003 the cost of absorbing the former GDR had reached 1.2 trillion euros. East Germans were subsidized into the Federal Republic: their jobs, pensions, transport, education and housing underwritten by huge increases in government expenditure. In the short run this worked—confirming East Germans’ faith not so much in the free market as in the unplumbed resources of the West German exchequer. But after the first flush of reunion, many ‘Ossies’ were actually put off by the patronizing triumphalism of their Western cousins—a sentiment on which the former Communists would trade with some success in future elections.

Meanwhile, to avoid upsetting West German voters—by no means all of whom had greeted unification with unalloyed enthusiasm—Kohl chose not to raise taxes. Instead, in order to meet its vast new commitments the Federal Republic—which had hitherto run substantial current account surpluses—had no choice but to go into deficit. The Bundesbank, aghast at the inflationary impact of such a policy, accordingly began steadily to raise interest rates, starting in 1991—at precisely the moment when the Deutschmark was being locked for ever into a planned European currency. The knock-on effect of these interest rates—increased unemployment and slower economic growth—would be felt not just in Germany but throughout the European Monetary System. In effect, Helmut Kohl exported the cost of his country’s unification and Germany’s European partners were made to share the burden.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s concessions on Germany surely contributed to the decline in his domestic standing—indeed he had warned James Baker that a united Germany inside NATO might ‘be the end of perestroika’. To lose the other east European satellite states could be attributed to misfortune; but to relinquish Germany as well looked like carelessness. The Soviet Defense Minister, Marshall Sergei Akhromeyev, was convinced that Gorbachev could have got better terms from the West had he paid attention to the problem in time; and he was not alone. But that, of course, was Gorbachev’s problem: by the end of the 1980s he was so absorbed in domestic challenges that his response to the rapid onset of problems in the USSR’s ‘near-West’ was, as we have seen, to leave the latter increasingly to its own devices.

But benign neglect was not an option when it came to addressing comparable challenges within the Soviet Union’s own frontiers. The Russian empire had grown by conquest and accretion over the centuries and much of what had once been foreign territory was now intimately associated with the homeland. There appeared to be no question of ‘releasing’ it in the sense that Poland or Hungary had now been ‘released’. But the more recent Soviet conquests remained only half-digested and vulnerable, as we have seen, to foreign influence and example: in central Asia, in the Caucasus, but above all on the far western edge of the empire along the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic republics of the Union—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were distinctive in three significant respects. In the first place they were more exposed to the West than any other region of the Soviet Union proper. Estonians especially were in touch with the Scandinavian countries, watching Finnish television since the 1970s and ever-conscious of the contrast between their own condition and that of their prosperous neighbours. Lithuanians, whose primary historical and geographical affinity was with neighbouring Poland, could hardly fail to notice that even under Communism Poles were decidedly freer and better off than them.

Secondly, and despite the unflattering comparison with foreign neighbours, the Baltic states were nonetheless prosperous by Soviet standards. They were the major Soviet producers of a large number of industrial products—railroad cars, radio sets, paper goods—as well as a leading source of fish, dairy produce and cotton. Between the commodities that they produced and those that passed through their docks Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians had at least a passing acquaintance with a way of life and a standard of living of which most of the rest of the Soviet Union could but dream.

But the third distinguishing feature of the Baltic republics, and by far the most significant, was that they alone had a recent history of genuine independence. After initially winning their freedom in 1919 following the collapse of the Czarist Empire they had been forcibly re-absorbed twenty years later by the Romanovs’ Soviet heirs, in the secret clauses of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But the invasion of 1940 was still very much part of living memory. In the Baltics, Gorbachev’s glasnost—which elsewhere in the Soviet Union prompted demands for greater civil or economic rights—inevitably re-opened the question of independence. Samizdat in this region was always and necessarily nationalist in tone.

An additional reason for this was the ‘Russian’ question. In 1945 the population of all three Baltic republics was quite homogenous, with most residents belonging to the dominant national group and speaking the local language. But by the early 1980s, thanks to forced expulsions during and after the war and a steady inflow of Russian soldiers, administrators and workers, the population was far more mixed, especially in the northern republics. In Lithuania some 80 percent of the residents of the republic were still Lithuanian; but in Estonia only an estimated 64 percent of the population was ethnically Estonian and Estonian-speaking; while in Latvia the share of native Latvians in the population, at the 1980 census, was 1.35 million out of a total of some 2.5 million: just 54 percent. The countryside was still peopled by Balts, but the cities were increasingly Russian, and Russian-speaking: a much resented transformation.

The first stirrings of protest in the region were thus directed at questions of language and nationality, and the associated memory of Soviet deportations to Siberia of thousands of local ‘subversives’. On August 23rd 1987, there were simultaneous demonstrations in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn to mark the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed three months later in Riga alone by a public meeting to commemorate the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of Latvian independence. Emboldened by their success—or, more precisely, by the authorities’ unprecedented tolerance of such public expressions of implied dissent—independent groups and gatherings started to emerge across the region.

Thus on March 25th 1988 in Riga hundreds gathered to commemorate the Latvian deportations of 1949, followed by a demonstration in June to mark the expulsions of 1940. There followed an uncharacteristically lively meeting of the hitherto quiescent Latvian Writers’ Union, with talk of a ‘Latvian Popular Front’. A few weeks later, under the auspices of the ostensibly a-political ‘Environmental Protection Club’ (EPC), the Latvian National Independence Movement was born. The course of events in Estonia was virtually identical: following the commemorations of 1987 and a series of environmentalist protests there was born first the ‘Estonian Heritage Society’, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of local cultural monuments; then, in April 1988, a ‘Popular Front of Estonia’; and finally, in August—one month after its Latvian confrère—the Estonian National Independence Movement.

The most dramatic aspect of these nascent political movements in Estonia and Latvia was their mere existence—and their unusually subversive nomenclature. But it was in Lithuania, where the Russian presence was far less obtrusive, that the challenge to Soviet power was made explicit. On July 9th 1988 a demonstration in Vilnius to demand environmental protections, democracy and greater autonomy for Lithuania attracted 100,000 people in support of Sajudis, the newly-formed ‘Lithuanian Reorganization Movement’, openly critical of the Lithuanian Communist Party for its ‘subservience’ to Moscow and with ‘Red Army Go Home’ emblazoned on their banners . By February 1989 Sajudis had been transformed into a nationwide political party. The following month, in the elections to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, it won 36 of Lithuania’s 42 seats.

The elections in all three republics were a marked victory for independent candidates and triggered a growing awareness of a common Baltic trajectory. This was symbolically re-confirmed on August 23rd 1989 by the forging of a human chain (‘Hands across the Baltic’) 650 kilometers in length, reaching from Vilnius through Riga to Tallinn, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. An estimated 1.8 million people—one quarter of the entire population of the region— took part. With the Estonian and Latvian independence movements now echoing their Lithuanian counterpart and openly proclaiming national independence as their goal, confrontation with Moscow seemed inevitable.

And yet it came very slowly. The Baltic independence movements spent 1989 pressing against the frontiers of the permissible. When the newly independence-minded Supreme Soviets of first Lithuania and then Latvia tried to imitate an Estonian law of November 1988 authorizing the privatization of local state enterprises, Moscow voided the decrees, as it had earlier voided the Estonian initiative; but otherwise the government refrained from any involvement. When, on October 8th 1989 (the day after Gorbachev’s public warning in East Berlin that ‘life punishes those who delay’), the Latvian Popular Front proclaimed its intention to move towards full independence, the Soviet authorities were too preoccupied with the escalating crisis in Germany to take any action.

But on December 18th the Lithuanian Communist Party split; an overwhelming majority declaring itself for immediate independence. Now Gorbachev could no longer remain silent. He traveled to Vilnius on January 11th 1990 to advise against the proposed secession, urging ‘moderation’. However—and not for the first time—his own example was working against him. Emboldened by the electoral victory of Sajudis, by the Soviet President’s own success in getting the Soviet Central Committee to abandon the constitutional guarantee of the Party’s ‘leading role’311, and by the ‘4+2’ negotiations then under way, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet on March 11th voted 124-0 to restore Lithuanian independence, symbolically reinstating the 1938 ‘Constitution of the State of Lithuania’ and nullifying the authority in the Republic of Lithuania of the Constitution of the USSR.

It says a lot about the uncertain state of affairs in 1990—when even the government of the Russian Republic itself was now asserting its ‘sovereignty’ and the precedence of Russian laws over ‘all-Union’ decrees—that the Soviet rulers’ response to the Vilnius declaration was to initiate nothing more threatening than an economic boycott: unable to prevent a Lithuanian breakaway, Gorbachev was nonetheless still capable of forestalling the military intervention that many of his hard-line colleagues were now demanding. Even the boycott itself was abandoned in June, in return for a Lithuanian agreement to ‘suspend’ the full implementation of its declaration of independence.

After a hectic six months during which virtually every other major Soviet republic asserted its ‘sovereignty’ if not yet its full independence, Gorbachev’s position was becoming untenable. His efforts to rein in the Baltic initiatives had substantially weakened his image as a ‘reformer’, while his failure to suppress talk of autonomy, sovereignty and independence was stirring up resentment among his colleagues and—more ominously—in the army and security forces. On December 20th 1990 his Foreign Minister, Edvard Shevardnadze, resigned and warned publicly of the growing risk of a coup.

On January 10th 1991, with the US and its allies thoroughly distracted by the Gulf War then getting under way in Iraq, Gorbachev issued an ultimatum to the Lithuanians, demanding in his capacity as President of the Union that they adhere forthwith to the Constitution of the USSR. The following day soldiers from the élite forces of the KGB and the Soviet Ministry of the Interior seized public buildings in Vilnius and installed a ‘National Salvation Committee’. Twenty four hours later they attacked the radio and television studios in the city, turning their guns on a large crowd of demonstrators who had gathered there: fourteen civilians were killed, 700 wounded. A week later troops from the same units stormed the Latvian Ministry of the Interior in Riga, killing four people.

The bloodshed in the Baltics signaled the opening of the endgame in the Soviet Union. Within a week over 150,000 people had gathered in Moscow to demonstrate against the shootings. Boris Yeltsin, erstwhile First Secretary of the Moscow City Committee and—since May 1990—Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, traveled to Tallinn to sign a mutual recognition of ‘sovereignty’ between Russia and the Baltic Republics, bypassing altogether the Soviet authorities. In March 1991 referenda in Latvia and Estonia confirmed that electors there too overwhelmingly favored full independence. Gorbachev, who had half-heartedly started to repress the recalcitrant republics, now reverted to his earlier stance and vainly sought a modus vivendi with them instead.

But the Soviet President was now under attack from both sides. His reluctance to crush the Balts definitively alienated his military allies (two of the generals who staged the attacks in Vilnius and Riga would figure prominently in the subsequent coup in Moscow). But his former friends and admirers no longer trusted him. Yeltsin in March 1991 publicly denounced Gorbachev’s ‘lies and deceptions’ and called for his resignation, defying official pressure to remain silent or face impeachment. Meanwhile the Baltic example was being taken up in other republics.

So long as the overarching structures of Soviet power remained secure, Communist rulers from Ukraine to Kazakhstan had confined their ‘reforms’ to cautious mimicry of Gorbachev himself. But following the débâcle in the Baltics the same well-honed antennae that attuned them toperestroika now signaled that the Union itself might well be doomed; in any case they could see for themselves that in certain ruling circles the Soviet President was a marked man. Thus whereas the new politics of the Baltic republics reflected a genuine and widespread national renaissance, moves towards ‘sovereignty’ in many of the other republics were typically a more variable mixture of national feeling and nomenklatura self-preservation. There was also a growing element of fear: a sense that if security and authority were crumbling at the apex—or, worse, might soon be forcibly and unilaterally reasserted by Gorbachev’s foes—then it would be prudent to gather the essential reins of power into local hands. Finally, there was a dawning awareness among Soviet managers that should the center fall apart an awful lot of valuable public assets would be up for grabs: party property, mineral rights, farms, factories, tax revenues and so forth.

By far the most important of the would-be ‘sovereign’ republics now asserting their distinctive claims was Ukraine.312 Like the Baltic republics, Ukraine had a history of independence (albeit chequered), last asserted and promptly lost in the aftermath of World War One. It was also intimately associated with Russia’s own history: in the eyes of many Russian nationalists, Kievan ‘Rus’—the thirteenth-century kingdom based on the Ukrainian capital and reaching from the Carpathians to the Volga—was as integral to the core identity of the empire as Russia itself. But of more immediate and practical consideration were the material resources of the region.

Sitting squarely athwart Russia’s access routes to the Black Sea (and the Mediterranean) as well as to central Europe, Ukraine was a mainstay of the Soviet economy. With just 2.7 percent of the land area of the USSR it was home to 18 percent of its population and generated nearly 17 percent of the country’s Gross National Product, second only to Russia itself. In the last years of the Soviet Union Ukraine contained 60 percent of the country’s coal reserves and a majority share of the country’s titanium (vital for modern steel production); its unusually rich soil was responsible for over 40 percent of Soviet agricultural output by value.

The disproportionate importance of Ukraine in Russian and Soviet history was reflected in the Soviet leadership itself. Both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were Russians who hailed from eastern Ukraine—Khrushchev returning there in the 1930s as First Secretary of the Ukrainian Party. Konstantin Chernenko was the son of Ukrainian ‘kulaks’ deported to Siberia, while Yuri Andropov had risen to the top as a consequence of occupying the strategically central post of KGB head in Ukraine. But this close association between the Ukrainian republic and the Soviet leadership did not imply any special regard for its inhabitants.

Quite the contrary. For much of its history as a Soviet republic, Ukraine was treated as an internal colony: its natural resources exploited, its people kept under close surveillance (and, in the 1930s, exposed to a program of punitive repression that amounted to near-genocide). Ukrainian products—notably food and ferrous metals—were shipped to the rest of the Union at heavily subsidized prices, a practice that continued almost to the end. Following World War Two, the Ukrainian Socialist Republic was considerably enlarged by the annexation from Poland of eastern Galicia and western Volhynia: the local Polish population, as we have seen, was expelled westwards in exchange for ethnic Ukrainians forced out of Poland itself.

These population exchanges—and the wartime extermination of much of the local Jewish community—resulted in a region that was by Soviet standards quite homogenous: thus whereas the Russian Republic in 1990 contained over one hundred minorities, thirty one of them living in autonomous regions, Ukraine was 84 percent Ukrainian. Most of the rest of the population were Russians (11 percent), with the remainder comprising small numbers of Moldovans, Poles, Magyars, Bulgarians and the country’s surviving Jews. Perhaps more to the point the only significant minority—the Russians—was concentrated in the industrial east of the country and in the capital Kiev.

Central and Western Ukraine, notably around Lviv, the second city, was predominantly Ukrainian in language and Eastern Orthodox or else Uniate (Greek-rite Catholic) in religion. Thanks to the relative tolerance of the Habsburgs, Ukrainians in Galicia had been allowed to preserve their native tongue. Depending upon district, anything from 78 percent to 91 percent of the local inhabitants used it as their first language in 1994, whereas in the territories once ruled by the Czar even those who identified themselves as Ukrainians often spoke Russian more readily.

The Soviet constitution, as we have seen, ascribed national identities to the residents of its separate republics and indeed defined all its citizens by ethnic-national categories. As elsewhere, so in Ukraine—particularly the recently-annexed Western Ukraine—this had self-fulfilling consequences. In earlier times, when the local language was mostly confined to the remote countryside, and the cities were Russian-speaking and Soviet-dominated, the theoretically decentralized and federal character of this union of national republics was of interest only to scholars and Soviet apologists. But with the growing number of urban-dwelling Ukrainian-speakers, Ukrainian-language media, and a political élite now identifying itself with self-consciously ‘Ukrainian’ interests, Ukrainian nationalism was the predictable accompaniment to Soviet fragmentation.313

A non-Party movement—RUKH (the ‘People’s Movement for Perestroika’)—was founded in Kiev in November 1988, the first autonomous Ukrainian political organization for many decades. It gathered considerable support, notably in the major cities and from ‘60s-era reform Communists; but in marked contrast to independence movements in the Baltic it could not automatically count on mass backing and did not reflect any groundswell of national sentiment. In elections to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet in March 1990 the Communists secured a clear majority; RUKH won less than a quarter of the seats.

Thus it was not Ukrainian nationalists who were to seize the initiative but rather the Communists themselves. The Communists in the Ukrainian Soviet voted, on July 16th 1990, to declare Ukrainian ‘sovereignty’ and asserted the republic’s right to possess its own military and the primacy of its own laws. And it was under the direction of Leonid Kravchuk—a Communist apparatchik and former ‘Secretary for ideological questions’ of the Ukrainian Party—that Ukrainians took part in a March 1991 all-Union referendum and indicated their continuing support for a federal system, albeit ‘renewed’ (in Gorbachev’s term). Only in Western Ukraine, where voters were asked whether they favored outright independence over intra-federal sovereignty, were the Ukrainian Communists outflanked by those seeking a complete break with Moscow: 88 percent voted yes. Kravchuk and his fellow Party leaders duly took note, while cautiously awaiting the outcome of developments elsewhere.

This pattern was repeated in the smaller western Soviet republics as well, varying according to local circumstances. Byelorussia (or ‘Belarus’), to the north of Ukraine, had no comparable national identity or traditions. The ephemeral independent ‘Belarusan (sic) National Republic’ of 1918 never secured external recognition and many of its own citizens felt closer allegiance to Russia, or else Poland or Lithuania. After World War Two, with the annexation of parts of eastern Poland, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic contained a significant minority of Russians, Poles and Ukrainians. Belarussians themselves—though by far the largest linguistic community in the republic—showed no sign of wanting or expecting sovereignty of any kind; nor could their country, heavily dependent on Russia, hope to sustain genuine independence.

A poor, marshy region better suited to livestock-rearing than large scale agriculture, Belarus had been devastated by the war. Its most significant contribution to the post-war Soviet economy was in chemicals and flax—and in its strategic position athwart major gas lines and communication links from Moscow to the Baltic Sea. The nearest thing to an independence movement was Adradzhenne (‘Rebirth’), an organization based in the capital Minsk that emerged in 1989 and closely echoed the Ukrainian RUKH. In Belarus as in Ukraine, the Soviet elections of 1990 saw the Communists returned in a clear majority; and when the Ukrainian Soviet declared itself ‘sovereign’ in July 1990 its northern neighbour duly followed suit two weeks later. In Minsk as in Kiev, the localnomenklatura was moving prudently, waiting upon events in Moscow.

Soviet Moldavia, squeezed between Ukraine and Romania, was a different and rather more interesting case.314 The territory in question—‘Bessarabia’ as it was better-known under the Czars—had see-sawed back and forth between Russia and Romania over the course of the century and the fortunes of war. Its four and a half million residents were predominantly Moldavian, but with large Russian and Ukrainian minorities and quite a significant number of Bulgarians, Jews, gypsies and Gagauz (a Turkic-speaking Orthodox people living near the Black Sea). In this characteristically imperial mix of peoples the majority were Romanian-speakers; but under Soviet rule—the better to separate them from neighbouring Romanians—the citizens of Moldavia had been constrained to write their language in Cyrillic and describe themselves not as Romanians but as ‘Moldovans’.

National identity here was thus more than a little uncertain. On the one hand many of its people, especially in the capital Chisinau (Kishinev), spoke Russian well and thought of themselves as Soviet citizens; on the other hand the Romanian connection (in history and in language) provided a bridge to Europe and a basis for burgeoning demands for increased autonomy. When a ‘Popular Front’ movement emerged in 1989 its primary objective was the demand that Romanian become the official language of the republic, a concession that the local Communist authorities granted that same year. There was also some incendiary talk, mostly speculative and actively discouraged from Bucharest, of Moldova ‘rejoining’ Romania itself.

Following the 1990 elections, in which the Popular Front won a majority, the new government proceeded first to change the name of the republic from the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic to the ‘Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova’ (later plain ‘Republic of Moldova’) and then, in June, to declare itself sovereign. These largely symbolic moves caused rising anxiety and talk of pre-emptive separatism among Russian-speakers as well as the tiny Gagauz community. Following a referendum on autonomy in the autumn of 1990 the Communist leadership in Tiraspol—the main town in eastern Moldova, across the Dniester river, where Russians and Ukrainians formed a local majority—declared a Transnistrian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, echoing a similarly ‘autonomous’ Gagauz Soviet Socialist Republic in the southeast.

Given that there are at most 160,000 Gagauz, and that ‘Transnistria’ is a banana-shaped sliver of land, just 4,000 square kilometers in area with a population of fewer than 500,000, the emergence of such ‘autonomous republics’ might seem absurd, the reductio ad absurdum of ‘invented traditions’ and ‘imagined nations’. But whereas the Gagauz republic never got beyond proclaiming its existence (the future Moldovan state would re-incorporate it peacefully, against a right to secede should Moldova ever ‘rejoin’ Romania), Transnistrian ‘independence’ was underwritten by the presence of the Soviet (later Russian) XIVth Army, which helped its clients fight off initial Moldovan attempts to recover the territory.

In the increasingly uncertain mood of the times, Soviet (and later Russian) authorities were not at all reluctant to offer patronage to a micro-state that was of necessity loyal to Moscow, wholly dependent on Russian goodwill and whose rulers were local Communist satraps who had seized control of the territory and would convert it in short order into a haven for smugglers and money-launderers. Transnistria being the source of 90 percent of Moldova’s electricity, the new rulers even had a legitimate economic resource of sorts, one that they could threaten to withhold should Chisinau refuse to cooperate.

Transnistrian independence was not recognized by Moldova or anyone else: even Moscow never went so far as to accord the breakaway region official legitimacy. But the scission in tiny Moldova offered a foretaste of more serious troubles to come a few hundred kilometers further east, in the Caucasus. There the longstanding antagonisms between Armenians and Azeris, complicated in particular by the presence in Azerbaijan of a substantial Armenian minority in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, had already resulted in violent clashes both with each other and with Soviet troops in 1988, with hundreds of casualties.315 In the Azerbaijan capital of Baku there were further clashes in January of the following year.

In neighbouring Georgia, twenty demonstrators were shot during clashes in the capital Tbilisi between nationalists and soldiers in April 1989, as tensions rose between crowds demanding secession from the Union and authorities still committed to preserving it. But Soviet Georgia, like the neighbouring Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, was too geographically vulnerable and ethnically complex to be able to contemplate with equanimity the insecurity that must accompany Soviet collapse. Accordingly the local authorities decided to anticipate that eventuality by precipitating it, the ruling Communist parties re-defining themselves as national independence movements and regional Party leaders—of whom by far the best known was Edvard Shevardnadze in Georgia—positioning themselves to seize power as soon as it fell into the street.

By the spring of 1991, then, everyone at the peripheries was waiting to see what would happen at the centre. The key, of course, was Russia itself—by far the dominant republic of the Union, with half the country’s population, three-fifths of its Gross National Product and three-quarters of its land mass. In a certain sense the country of ‘Russia’ as such did not exist: it had for centuries been an empire, whether in fact or in aspiration. Spread across eleven time zones and encompassing dozens of different peoples, ‘Russia’ had always been too big to be reduced to a single identity or common sense of purpose.316

During and after the Great Patriotic War the Soviet authorities had indeed played the Russian card, appealing to national pride and exalting the ‘victory of the Russian people’. But the Russian people had never been assigned ‘nationhood’ in the way that Kazakhs or Ukrainians or Armenians were officially ‘nations’ in Soviet parlance. There was not even a separate ‘Russian’ Communist Party. To be Russian was to be Soviet. There was a natural complementarity between the two: in a post-imperial age the Soviet Union provided cover for the Russian imperial state, while ‘Russia’ furnished the Soviet Union with historical and territorial legitimacy. The boundaries between ‘Russia’ and ‘the Soviet Union’ were thus kept (deliberately) blurred.317

By the time of Gorbachev there was a marked increase in the emphasis on ‘Russianness’, for some of the same reasons that the East German state had begun to take a very public pride in Frederick the Great and to exalt the properly German qualities of the German Democratic Republic. In the declining years of the peoples’ republics, patriotism re-emerged as a serviceable substitute for socialism. For just this reason it was also the easiest and least threatening form of political opposition. In Russia or the GDR, as in Hungary, intellectual critics might suffer persecution but muted expressions of nationalism were not necessarily repressed or even discouraged—they could be channeled to the authorities’ advantage. The revival of ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ in Soviet publications and the media should be understood in this light. It was also, of course, an additional source of anxiety for vulnerable national minorities.

This was the setting for the unexpected emergence of Boris Yeltsin. A conventional Brezhnev-era apparatchik, specializing in industrial construction before becoming a Central Committee Secretary, Yeltsin rose steadily through the ranks of the Party—until he was summarily demoted in 1987 for over-reaching himself in his criticisms of senior colleagues. At this crucial juncture Yeltsin, who had had ample opportunity to observe just how effectively the Party and state bureaucracy could prevent any real change, had the political instinct to re-programme himself as a distinctivelyRussian politician: emerging first as a deputy for the Russian Federation after the March 1990 elections and then as Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet—i.e. the Russian Parliament.

It was from this influential and visible perch that Boris Yeltsin became the country’s leading reformist, ostentatiously quitting the Communist Party in July 1990 and using his power-base in Russian Moscow, as it were, to take aim at erstwhile comrades across the way in Soviet Moscow. His primary target was now Gorbachev himself (despite the fact that Yeltsin had initially been a firm backer of the Soviet President, in whose native Sverdlovsk region he had worked for over a decade). The Soviet leader’s failings were becoming ever more painfully evident—and his popularity was sinking fast, as Yeltsin could not fail to observe.

Gorbachev’s major tactical mistake in domestic affairs had been to encourage the emergence of a national legislature with national visibility, real powers and considerable independence. Yeltsin and his Russian supporters were much quicker than Gorbachev himself to appreciate that this new, openly-elected Soviet would be a natural forum for the expression of discontents of all sorts; and Yeltsin became particularly adept at aligning Russia’s own interests with those of the various nations and republics. Gorbachev was alert to the threat that such alliances posed to the very Union itself: but by now it was too late for him to do anything except align himself uneasily and unconvincingly with Soviet functionaries nostalgic for the old Party monopoly—the same monopoly that he had done so much to break.

Thus while Gorbachev was still ‘triangulating’ between the desirable and the possible, arguing for a ‘controlled federalism’ (a characteristically Gorbachevian compromise), Yeltsin was passionately and very publicly defending the struggles for Baltic independence. In April 1991 Gorbachev reluctantly conceded to republics the right of secession in a new Union constitution; but this bow to reality merely weakened him further, convincing his conservative foes that Gorbachev would have to be removed if order was to be restored. Meanwhile, on June 12th 1991, Yeltsin, who had long since overtaken Gorbachev in national popularity polls, was elected President of the Russian Soviet Republic—the first ever democratically chosen leader of Russia.318

The following month, on July 12th, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR voted in favor of a new Union: de-centralized and allowing considerable latitude for dissenting member-states. Together with the popular election of the now openly anti-Communist Yeltsin, this finally tipped the scales. Party conservatives were becoming desperate and a group of highly-placed officials—including the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Interior Minister and Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB—began to prepare for a coup. That something of the sort was brewing was by now an open secret in Moscow—as early as June 20th the American ambassador had actually warned Gorbachev of a conspiracy, to no avail.

The putsch itself was timed to coincide with Gorbachev’s annual vacation in the Crimea; the last Party leader to be forcibly deposed, Nikita Khrushchev, had also been relaxing in the Soviet south when his colleagues in Moscow staged his surprise removal. The 1991 plotters were thus unabashedly reverting to earlier Soviet practices. Accordingly, on August 17th Gorbachev was asked to agree to hand his Presidential powers to an ‘Emergency Committee’. When he refused, the Emergency Committee announced on August 19th that the President was unable to exercise his authority ‘for health reasons’ and that the Committee would thus assume full powers. The Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanaev signed a decree stripping Gorbachev of his authority and a six-month ‘state of emergency’ was declared.

But although Gorbachev was helpless, for all practical purposes a prisoner in his Black Sea villa at the southern promontory of the Crimea, the plotters were not much better off. In the first place, the mere fact that they had had to declare an emergency and announce virtual martial law merely in order to replace one Communist leader with another demonstrated how far the traditional structures of the Soviet Union had unraveled. The plotters did not have the unanimous support of their own agencies—crucially a majority of senior KGB officers refused to back Kryuchkov. And while there was no doubt about what the plotters were against, they were never able to offer any clear indication of what it was they were for.

In addition, the plotters were an unintentional caricature of everything that was wrong with the Soviet past: old, grey men from the Brezhnev era, slow and wooden in speech, out of touch with changes in a country whose clock they were clumsily trying to turn back thirty years. In times past when such men as these schemed in the Kremlin they were hidden from public view, their only appearances confined to distant viewing stands at public ceremonies. Now, however, they were constrained to appear on television and to the press to explain and defend their actions—and the public was given ample opportunity to observe close-up the physiognomy of official Socialism in its dotage.

Meanwhile Boris Yeltsin seized the moment. His standing had been further elevated by a personal meeting with George Bush, during the American President’s visit to the USSR just three weeks before. Now, on August 19th, he publicly denounced the Kremlin takeover as an illegal coup d’état and placed himself at the head of the resistance to it, directing operations from his headquarters in the Russian Parliament and mobilizing the crowds surrounding it to defend democracy against the tanks. At the same time, in the full glare of the assembled international media, Yeltsin engaged in lengthy conversations and negotiations with world leaders—all but one of whom offered him their full public support and studiously withheld any recognition from the increasingly isolated conspirators.319

The resistance was no mere formality: on the night of August 20th-21st three demonstrators died in clashes with the army. But the leaders of the coup—having lost the public initiative—now began to lose their nerve. They did not have the broad support of the armed forces that they would have needed to secure the country, and with every hour of the stand-off in the streets of Moscow (and Leningrad) they were losing their crucial asset: fear. Instead of being intimidated by developments in the Kremlin, democrats and nationalists were emboldened by them: in the midst of the uncertainty, on August 20th, Estonia declared itself independent, with Latvia following suit the next day. On August 21st one of the coup leaders, Boris Pugo (the Interior Minister and former head of the KGB in Latvia), committed suicide; at Yeltsin’s behest his colleagues were arrested. That same day an exhausted and anxious Gorbachev was flown back to Moscow.

Formally speaking, Gorbachev resumed his powers; but in reality everything had changed for ever. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was terminally discredited—it was not until August 21st that Party spokesmen publicly condemned their colleagues’ coup, by which time the plotters were already in prison and Yeltsin had taken advantage of the Party’s fatal hesitations to ban it from operating within the Russian federation. Gorbachev, who seemed dazed and uncertain when seen in public, was understandably slow to grasp the import of these developments. Rather than praise Yeltsin, the Russian Parliament or the Russian people for their success, he spoke to the cameras about perestroika and the indispensable role the Party would continue to have in renewing itself, promoting reforms, etc.

This approach still played well in the West, where it was widely assumed (and hoped) that after the abortive coup things would carry on much as before. But in the Soviet Union itself Gorbachev’s anachronistic reiterations of failed goals, and his apparent ingratitude to his rescuers, were a revelation. Here was a man who had been overtaken by History and didn’t know it. For many Russians the events of August had been a true revolution, a genuinely popular uprising not for the reformers and their Party but againstthem: the CPSU, as the demonstrators shouted at Gorbachev on his belated arrival at the Russian Parliament, was ‘a criminal enterprise’ whose own government ministers had tried to overthrow the constitution. By the time a chastened Gorbachev got the point, suspended the CPSU and (on August 24th) resigned as its General Secretary, it was too late. Communism was now irrelevant, and so too was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Of course, the former General Secretary was still President of the Soviet Union. But the relevance of the Union itself was now directly in question. The failed putsch had been the last and greatest impulse to secession. Between August 24th and September 21st Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Tajikistan and Armenia followed the Baltic republics and declared themselves independent of the Soviet Union—most of them making the announcement in the confused and uncertain days that followed Gorbachev’s return.320 Following Kravchuk’s lead in Ukraine, regional First Secretaries like Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akaev in Kyrgyzstan, Gaidar Aliev in Azerbaijan, Stanislav Shushkevich in Belarus and others cannily distanced themselves from their longstanding Party affiliation and re-situated themselves at the head of their new states, taking care to nationalize as quickly as possible all the local Party’s assets.

Gorbachev and the Supreme Soviet in Moscow could do little more than acknowledge reality, recognize the new states and lamely propose yet another ‘new’ constitution that would embrace the independent republics in some sort of con-federal arrangement. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament were establishing an independent Russia. By November Yeltsin had taken under Russian control virtually all financial and economic activity on Russian territory. The Soviet Union was now a shell state, emptied of power and resources.

By this time the core institutions of the USSR were either in the hands of independent states or else had ceased to exist: on October 24th the KGB itself was formally abolished. When Gorbachev proposed a new ‘Treaty on the Economic Community of Sovereign States’ most of the independent republics simply refused to sign. At the October sessions of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR the western republics were absent. Finally, on December 8th, the presidents and prime ministers of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus—the core Slav states of the Soviet empire—took it upon themselves to meet near Minsk and denounce the Union Treaty of 1922, in effect abolishing the Soviet Union. In its place they proposed establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Upon hearing of this, Gorbachev in Moscow angrily denounced the move as ‘illegal and dangerous’. But the opinions of the President of the Soviet Union were no longer a matter of concern to anyone: as Gorbachev at last was coming to appreciate, he was effectively in charge of nothing. Nine days later, on December 17th, Gorbachev met with Yeltsin and they agreed (or, rather, Gorbachev conceded) that the Soviet Union must be formally abolished: its ministries, embassies and armies were to pass under Russian control, its place under international law to be inherited by the Russian Republic.

Twenty-four hours later Gorbachev announced his intention to resign as Soviet President. On Christmas Day 1991 the Russian flag replaced the Soviet insignia atop the Kremlin: Mikhail Gorbachev ceded his prerogatives as Commander-in-Chief to President Yeltsin of Russia and stepped down from his post. Within forty-eight hours Gorbachev had vacated his office and Yeltsin moved in. At midnight on December 31st 1991 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist.

The disappearance of the Soviet Union was a remarkable affair, unparalleled in modern history. There was no foreign war, no bloody revolution, no natural catastrophe. A large industrial state—a military superpower—simply collapsed: its authority drained away, its institutions evaporated. The unraveling of the USSR was not altogether free of violence, as we have seen in Lithuania and the Caucasus; and there would be more fighting in some of the independent republics in the coming years. But for the most part the world’s largest country departed the stage almost without protest. To describe this as a bloodless retreat from Empire is surely accurate; but it hardly begins to capture the unanticipated ease of the whole process.

Why, then, was it all so apparently painless? Why, after decades of internal violence and foreign aggression, did the world’s first Socialist society implode without even trying to defend itself? One answer, of course, is that it never really existed in the first place: that, in the words of the historian Martin Malia, ‘there is no such thing as socialism, and the Soviet Union built it.’ But if this accounts for the futility of Communist authority in the satellite states, held in place by nothing more than the shadow of the Red Army, it does not quite suffice to explain what happened in the imperial homeland itself. Even if the society that Communism claimed to have built was essentially fraudulent, the Leninist state, after all, was decidedly real. And it was a home-grown product.

Part of the answer is Mikhail Gorbachev’s unintended success in eviscerating the administrative and repressive apparatus on which the Soviet state depended. Once the Party lost its grip, once it was clear that the army or the KGB would not be deployed without mercy to break the regime’s critics and punish dissent—and this did not become clear until 1991—then the naturally centrifugal tendencies of a huge land empire came to the fore. Only then did it become evident—seventy years of energetic claims to the contrary notwithstanding—that there was indeed no Communist society as such: only a wilting state and its anxious citizens.

But—and this is the second aspect of the explanation—the Soviet state did not in fact disappear. The USSR shattered, rather, into a multiplicity of little successor states, most of them ruled by experienced Communist autocrats whose first instinct was to reproduce and impose the systems and the authority they had hitherto wielded as Soviet managers. There was no ‘transition to democracy’ in most of the successor republics; that transition came—if it came at all—somewhat later. Autocratic state power, the only kind that most denizens of the domestic Soviet empire had ever known, was not so much dethroned as downsized. From the outside this was a dramatic change; but experienced from within its implications were decidedly less radical.

Moreover, whereas the local Communist secretaries who metamorphosed so smoothly into national state presidents had every reason to act decisively to secure their fiefdom, the Soviet authorities at the center had no territorial fiefdom of their own to protect. All they could offer was a return to the decrepit structures that Gorbachev had so enthusiastically cut down; unsurprisingly, they lacked the will to battle on.321 The only former Communist leader with a power base in Moscow itself was Boris Yeltsin; he, as we have seen, did indeed act decisively—but on behalf of a renascent ‘Russia’.

Thus the efflorescence of successor states should not be interpreted as evidence that the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of a hitherto quiescent, newly reawakened nationalism in its constituent republics. With the exception of the Baltic countries, whose trajectory more closely resembled that of their western neighbours,the Soviet republics were themselves a product of Soviet planning and—as we have seen—were typically quite ethnically complex. Even in the newly-independent states there were many vulnerable minorities (especially the omnipresent Russians)—erstwhile Soviet citizens with good reason to regret the loss of ‘imperial’ protection and who would prove distinctly ambivalent about their new circumstances.

They were not alone. When President George Bush visited Kiev on August 1st 1991 he made a point of publicly recommending to Ukrainians that they remain in the Soviet Union. ‘Some people’ he declared, ‘have urged the United States to choose between supporting President Gorbachev and supporting independence-minded leaders throughout the USSR. I consider this a false choice. President Gorbachev has achieved astonishing things . . . We will maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet Government of President Gorbachev.’ This rather hamfisted attempt to shore up the increasingly vulnerable Soviet President was not quite tantamount to an endorsement of the Soviet Union . . . but it came perilously close.

The American President’s publicly-aired caution is a further salutary reminder of the limited part played by the USA in these developments. Pace the self-congratulatory narrative that has entered the American public record, Washington did not ‘bring down’ Communism—Communism imploded of its own accord. Meanwhile, if his Ukrainian audience ignored Bush’s advice and voted overwhelmingly a few months later to quit the Union for good, it was not out of a sudden access of patriotic enthusiasm. Independence in Ukraine, or Moldova, or even Georgia, was not so much about self-determination as self-preservation—a sound basis for state-making, as it turned out, but a poor foundation for democracy.

Nothing in its life so became the Soviet Union as the leaving of it. Much the same was true of the break-up of Czechoslovakia, the ‘velvet divorce’ between Slovaks and Czechs that was peaceably and amicably consummated on January 1st 1993. At first glance this would appear a textbook instance of the natural onrush of ethnic sentiments into the vacuum left by Communism: the ‘return of history’ in the form of national revival. And that, of course, is how it was advertised by many of the local protagonists. But on closer inspection the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate states—Slovakia and the Czech Republic—illustrates once again, on a provincial scale and at the heart of Europe, the limitations of such an interpretation.

There was certainly no shortage of ‘history’ on which to call. Czechs and Slovaks, however indistinguishable they might appear to perplexed outsiders, had markedly different pasts. Bohemia and Moravia—the historical territories comprising the Czech lands—could boast not merely a remarkable medieval and Renaissance past at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire but also a pre-eminent share in the industrialization of central Europe. Within the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire Czechs enjoyed growing autonomy and a marked prosperity. Their major city, Prague—one of the aesthetic glories of the continent—was by 1914 a significant center of modernism in the visual arts and literature.

Slovaks, by contrast, had little to boast about. Ruled for centuries from Budapest they lacked any distinctive national story—within the Hungarian half of the Empire they were regarded not as ‘Slovaks’ but as slav-language-speaking peasants of rural northern Hungary. The urban inhabitants of the Slovak region were predominantly Germans, Hungarians or Jews: it was not by chance that the largest town in the area, an unprepossessing conurbation on the Danube a few kilometres east of Vienna, was variously known as Pressburg (to German-speaking Austrians) or Pozsony (to Hungarians). Only with the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and the Slovaks’ somewhat reluctant incorporation therein, did it become the second city of the new state under the name Bratislava.

The inter-war Republic of Czechoslovakia was democratic and liberal by prevailing regional standards, but its centralized institutions strongly favored the Czechs, who occupied almost all positions of power and influence. Slovakia was a mere province and a poor and rather disfavored one at that. The same impulse that led many of the country’s three million German-speaking citizens to listen to pro-Nazi separatists thus also drove a certain number of Czechoslovakia’s two and a half million Slovaks to look with sympathy upon Slovak populists demanding autonomy and even independence. In March 1939, when Hitler absorbed the Czech regions into the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, an authoritarian, clericalist Slovak puppet state was established under Father Józef Tiso. The first ever independent state of Slovakia thus emerged at Hitler’s behest and over the corpse of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Just how popular Slovakia’s wartime ‘independence’ ever was is hard to know after the fact. In the post-war years it was discredited both by its own record (Slovakia deported to death camps virtually all of its 140,000 pre-war Jewish population) and by its intimate dependence upon its Nazi patron. After its liberation, Czechoslovakia was re-established as a single state and expressions of Slovak nationalism were frowned upon. Indeed in the early Stalinist years, ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalism’ was one of the accusations levied at putative defendants in the show trials then being prepared—Gustav Husák spent six years in prison on the charge.

But in time the Communists in Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere, came to see the advantage of encouraging a moderate degree of national feeling. Reflecting a growing sentiment in Bratislava the reformers of 1968 (many of them of Slovak origin) proposed, as we have seen, a new federal constitution to comprise two distinct Czech and Slovak Republics; of all the significant innovations discussed or implemented in the Prague Spring this was the only one to survive the subsequent ‘normalization’. Having initially treated Catholic, rural Slovakia as hostile territory the Party authorities now came if anything to favor it (see Chapter 13).

Slovakia’s backwardness—or rather, the absence there of large concentrations of educated middle-class urbanites—now worked to its advantage. With fewer cars or televisions and worse communications than the more advanced western provinces, Slovaks appeared less vulnerable to foreign influence than Prague-based radicals and dissidents with their access to foreign media. Accordingly they suffered far less in the repression and purges of the seventies. Now it was Czechs who were on the receiving end of official disfavour.322

With this history in mind, the break up of Czechoslovakia after 1989 would appear, if not a foregone conclusion, then at the very least a logical outcome of decades of mutual ill-feeling: suppressed and exploited under Communism but not forgotten. But it was not thus. In the three years separating the end of Communism from the final split, every public opinion poll showed that some form of common Czecho-Slovak state was favored by a majority of Czechs and Slovaks. Nor was the political class deeply divided over the issue: in both Prague and Bratislava it was broadly agreed from the outset that the new Czechoslovakia would be a federation, with considerable autonomy for its separate parts. And the new President, Václav Havel, was a firm and very public believer in maintaining Czechs and Slovaks in the same country.

The initial unimportance of the ‘national’ question can be seen from the results of the first free elections, in June 1990. In Bohemia and Moravia Havel’s Civic Forum secured half of the vote, with most of the remainder divided between Communists and Christian Democrats. In Slovakia the picture was more complex: Civic Forum’s sister party Public Against Violence (PAV) emerged as the largest group, but a sizeable share of the vote was split between Christian Democrats, Communists, Hungarian Christian Democrats and Greens.21 But the newly re-emergent Slovak National Party scored just 13.9 percent in the elections to a Slovak National Council, 11 percent in the vote for delegates to the Federal Assembly (parliament). Less than one Slovak voter in seven opted for the only party which favored dividing the country into its separate ethnic constituencies.

But in the course of 1991 Civic Forum began to disintegrate. An alliance based upon a common foe (Communism) and a popular leader (Havel), it now had neither: Communism was gone and Havel was the President of the Republic, ostensibly above the political fray. Political differences between erstwhile colleagues now came to the fore, with doctrinal free-marketeers led by Finance Minister Václav Klaus (a self-described Thatcherite) increasingly influential. In April 1991, followingparliamentary approval of a broad law on the privatization of state-owned enterprises, Civic Forum split and Klaus’s (dominant) faction became the Civic Democratic Party.

Klaus was determined to drive the country rapidly forward towards ‘capitalism’. But whereas there was a real constituency in the Czech lands for such an objective this was not the case in Slovakia. Privatization, the free market and a reduced state sector held little appeal for most Slovaks, who depended far more than Czechs upon jobs in unprofitable, outdated state-owned factories, mines and mills—‘enterprises’ for whose products there was no longer a protected market and that were unlikely to attract foreign capital or private investors. In the eyes of certain business and political circles in Prague, Slovakia was a burdensome inheritance.

Meanwhile Public Against Violence also broke apart, for analogous reasons. Its most effective public figure was now Vladimír Mečiar, an ex-boxer who played a relatively minor role in the events of 1989 but had since proved far more adept than his colleagues at maneuvering through the shoals of democratic politics. Following the June election he had formed a government in the Slovak National Council, but his rebarbative personal style produced a split in his coalition and Mečiar was replaced by the Catholic politician Ján Carnogurský. Mečiar duly departed PAV, forming instead his own Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.

From the autumn of 1991 into the summer of 1992 representatives from the Czech and Slovak administrations conducted lengthy negotiations, seeking an agreed basis for a decentralized, federal constitution—the preference of the clear majority of politicians and voters on both sides. But Mečiar, in order to establish a constituency for himself and his party, now took up the cause of Slovak nationalism—a subject in which he had not previously evinced great interest. Slovaks, he informed his audiences, were threatened by everything from Czech privatization plans to Hungarian separatism to the prospect of absorption into ‘Europe’. Their national existence (not to mention their livelihoods) was now at stake.

Buoyed by such rhetoric and his kitschy but charismatic public style, Mečiar led his new party to a clear victory at the Federal elections of June 1992 with nearly 40 percent of the vote in Slovakia. Meanwhile, in the Czech regions, Václav Klaus’s new Civic Democratic Party, in alliance with Christian Democrats, also emerged victorious. With Klaus now prime minister of the Czech region, both autonomous halves of the federal republic were in the hands of men who—for different but complementary reasons—would not be sorry to see the country fall apart. Only the Federal President himself now stood, in constitutional form and in his own person, for the ideal of a united, federal Czechoslovakia.

But Václav Havel was no longer as popular—and therefore as influential—as he had been less than two years before. In his very first official journey as President he had traveled not to Bratislava but to Germany—an understandable move in the light of longstanding Czech-German animosity and his country’s need to make friends in Western Europe, but a tactical misstep nonetheless from the point of view of Slovak sensibilities. And Havel was not always well served by his staff: in March 1991 his spokesman Michael Žantovský declared that Slovak politics were increasingly in the hands of ex-Communists and ‘people who recall the Slovak state as the golden period of the Slovak nation’.323

Žantovský’s assertion was not altogether mistaken, but in context it would prove more than a little self-fulfilling. Like other former Czech dissidents, Havel and his colleagues were not always inclined to think well of Slovaks. They rather looked upon them as parochial chauvinists: at best naively chasing the mirage of sovereignty, at worst nostalgic for the wartime puppet state. Ironically, Klaus did not share such liberal prejudices, nor did he care one way or the other about Slovakia’s past. Like Mečiar, he was a realist. The two men, now the most powerful politicians in their respective regions, spent the next few weeks ostensibly negotiating the terms of a state treaty for a federal Czechoslovakia.

Whether they ever could have achieved agreement is unlikely: Mečiar demanded currency-issuing and borrowing rights for a virtually sovereign Slovak republic; a moratorium on privatization; the restoration of Communist-era subsidies; and a raft of other measures - all of which were anathema to Klaus, doggedly pursuing his plan for a forced march to the unrestricted market. Indeed, their meetings in the course of June and July 1992 were not really negotiations at all: Klaus purported to be surprised and upset by Mečiar’s demands, but these were hardly a secret in view of Mečiar’s many speeches on the subject. In practice it was Klaus who was maneuvering the Slovak leader towards a break, rather than the other way around.

In consequence, even though the majority of Slovak deputies in the Slovak National Council and in the Federal Assembly would have been quite content to approve a state treaty affording each half of the country full autonomy and equal status in a federal state, they found themselves instead facing a fait accompli. With negotiations stalled, Klaus in effect told his Slovak interlocutors: Since we appear to be unable to reach an agreement, we might as well abandon these fruitless efforts and go our separate ways. The Slovaks, faced with the apparent fulfillment of their own wishes, were trapped into assent—in many cases against their own better judgment.

On July 17th 1992 the Slovak National Council accordingly voted to adopt a new flag, a new constitution and a new name: the Slovak Republic. A week later Klaus and Mečiar, the latter still a trifle dazed by his own ‘success’, agreed to divide their country with effect from January 1st 1993. On that day Czechoslovakia disappeared and its two republics re-emerged as separate states, with Klaus and Mečiar as their respective Prime Ministers. Václav Havel, whose efforts to bind the country together had been increasingly forlorn—and altogether ignored in the final months—ceased to be President of Czechoslovakia and was reincarnated as President of the foreshortened Czech Republic.324

Whether divorce was good for the two partners remained unclear for some time—neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia flourished in the initial post-Communist decade. Klaus’s ‘shock therapy’ and Mečiar’s national-Communism both failed, albeit in different ways. But although Slovaks came to regret their dalliance with Vladimír Mečiar, and Klaus’s star waned in Prague, nostalgia for Czechoslovakia was never much in evidence. The Czechoslovak divorce was a manipulated process in which the Czech Right brought about what it claimed not to seek while Slovak Populists achieved rather more than they had intended; not many people were overjoyed at the result, but nor was there lasting regret. As in the break up of the Soviet Union, the power of the state and the political machinery it had spawned were not threatened: merely duplicated.

The division of Czechoslovakia was a product of chance and circumstances. It was also the work of men. With other people in control—with different outcomes at the elections of 1990 and 1992—the story would not have been the same. Contagion played a small part as well: the example of the Soviet Union—and events unfolding in the Balkans—made a schism between the two ‘national republics’ of one small central European state seem less absurd or impermissible than it might otherwise have appeared. Had a federal state treaty been agreed upon by 1992—had Czechoslovakia endured for a few years longer—it is highly unlikely that anyone in Prague or Bratislava would have seen much point in pursuing their quarrels, with the prospect of admission to the European Union absorbing their attention and the bloody massacres in nearby Bosnia concentrating their minds.

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