Back in the mid-1980s I was the Foreign Office speechwriter working for Sir Geoffrey Howe. Exciting times. Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the Soviet Union in what looked like a strongly positive new direction. In Poland the Solidarity movement was down but not out. Communist Yugoslavia was quietly rotting, but the scale of decay was not widely understood. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were working to respond firmly but positively to these momentous changes.
Sir Geoffrey asked me to work up some speech ideas for an after-dinner event. I came up with the following vivid lines:
Imagine people locked up for many years in a dark, disgusting dungeon. Finally the light is turned on, and they are told they are free to leave. How will they react?
Will they be delighted that their ordeal is at an end? Or will they be furious when they see for the first time the horrible conditions and the miserable state they’ve been reduced to?
Prescient questions. A few years later the Berlin Wall came down. Apartheid ended in South Africa. Poland moved towards its first free elections in decades. And, astonishingly, the Soviet Union itself died on its feet. First Russia then the 14 other Soviet republics proclaimed their independence.
As Tolstoy famously remarked, ‘Happy transitions from communism are all alike: every unhappy transition from communism is unhappy in its own way.’ My diplomatic career featured long years dealing with the transitions in Russia, Yugoslavia and finally Poland. How did people there respond when the lights were switched on?
First, the easy one. The transition in former Yugoslavia was not unhappy. It was disastrous.
A good case can be made that there never has been much of an ideological transition from communism in any of the former Yugoslav republics. Cold War Yugoslavia presented itself as a sui generis example of ‘communism with a human face’ as exemplified by its ‘self-management socialism’. The eccentric mix of one-party socialist planning and limited market mechanisms made Yugoslavia liberal-minded and prosperous compared to the Warsaw Pact countries.
As the Cold War ended the supposed Yugoslav economic miracle ran out of steam. Yet across Yugoslavia there was no popular pressure against socialist self-management and for democracy. Yugoslav politics across most of the country devolved into one simple nationalist zero-sum proposition: do we want freedom from rule by Belgrade (and Serbs), or not? Ruinous conflict broke out.
Over 20 years later we are still grappling with the consequences. Slovenia and now Croatia have joined the European Union. Tiny Montenegro is edging in the same direction. But Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia all still suffer existential identity crises of different sorts. This uncertainty deters foreign investors. Across the region millions of people are scarcely if at all better off than they were during the Yugo-Communist period. Yes, they now live in small, independent states with new democratic freedoms and EU-driven reforms. But the human cost of getting there has been incalculable.
Russia is a quite different case: a country on an unimaginably large scale, hugely endowed with natural resources. The transition, however, started from a much worse place.
It is almost impossible now for anyone visiting Moscow with its traffic, designer restaurants and fashion boutiques to imagine what things were like in the mid-1980s when I visited there for the first time. After the bustling coffee bars of Belgrade I expected something similar but on a bigger, better scale befitting a global power capital. I was stunned by how poor it was.
Communism seemed to have wrecked the most basic human interactions. I watched aghast in one shop as a woman politely asked if some modest item was in stock. The woman behind the counter did not look at her. There was a pause for some 20 seconds before the answer rudely came: ‘Nyet.’ Other shops were selling next to nothing. People queued in sullen silence to buy eggs which they had to try to take home wrapped in cones of newspaper. A long queue formed outside a shop selling something precious: blue shirts!
According to one widely held and (in my view) ridiculous analysis, Western governments treated Russia badly during the 1990s by imposing humiliating capitalist ‘shock therapy’ on a society unprepared for anything so radical. This created horrible inequality, greedy oligarchs and endemic corruption, opening the way for Vladimir Putin’s ‘managed democracy’.
‘Humiliating’ is an interesting word, with both objective and subjective meanings. Actions may be done with the intent to be humiliating. Or they may be done through good intentions, yet be interpreted as humiliating by others. Plus, as in the Russia case, millions of Russians themselves felt embarrassed and angry – humiliated – at the pitiful collapse of the Soviet Union.
What is not understood is that the real shock to Russia came from 70 long years of communist brutality and wastefulness on an insane scale. Marxism-Leninism created something never before seen in the economic history of the planet: value-subtracting industries, processes and factories which turned out clunky products worth less than the raw materials used to make them. For all his reassuring political noises, Gorbachev did nothing to set private business free. When he finally resigned there was scarcely a single banana to be seen across the USSR’s 11 time-zones.
Finally in autumn 1991 the madness stopped, almost overnight. The only way forward was to invest in the future, not try to resuscitate the wheezing Soviet industrial base. Western governments at first feared widespread starvation and scrambled to get food aid into Russia: at last the EU’s infamous CAP butter mountains came in handy. Western experts poured into Moscow to help the new leadership make sense of it all. New laws were drafted. The UK Know-How Fund helped start the Russian stock-market.
But the key factor was the fact that the Russians’ own energy and cleverness were once again unleashed, with amazing results. Food appeared in shops. Tens of thousands of cars poured into Moscow every month, bought not by Westerners flaunting their wealth but by Russians doing things for themselves. Within about 200 weeks of the end of communism Moscow had its first plump Yellow Pages directory of private businesses, none of which had existed or even been allowed to exist previously.
It’s true that in such chaotic circumstances and with state structures in disarray some wily Russians made colossal windfall gains, while millions of others (especially older people) have suffered mightily. But were Western policies ‘humiliating’ for Russia? I don’t think so. There was no policy template in Moscow or in Western capitals for dealing with such a sprawling calamity. We and the Russians alike all had to improvise. If a large part of the Russian population felt humiliated, this arose primarily from the ghastly realisation that for 70 years they had been enslaved by their own leaders, their life’s work taken for almost nothing: their proud, supposedly strong Russia had been reduced to needing so much outside help.
A related criticism of EU/US policies towards Russia has it that Western governments have not been sufficiently ‘sensitive’ to Russian strategic concerns (see the enlargement of NATO and Russia’s ‘traditional fear of encirclement’). Again, I disagree. This argument downplays the anxieties of other countries which not unreasonably think that now is the time for Russia to show sensitivity to their concerns. Moscow’s continued flirting with Stalin-era political iconography and rhetoric sends them a grim signal. Plus, in Poland and the other former Warsaw Pact countries, NATO membership has transformed the former communist armed forces and their murky intelligence agencies, much reducing post-communist corruption and mischief.
Finally Poland, which – thanks in good part to the wisdom of Pope John Paul II – has taken seriously the moral quality of the transition from communism to freedom, flourished accordingly.
Forget the frenetic introspection of Poland’s politics. Look at the trends towards stability and growth. Poland’s first free elections in 1991 were contested by over 100 political parties. Now only five parties are represented in the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament). The same market-based policies said to have been humiliating for Russia were largely welcomed and implemented well. Poland’s GDP has grown from a meagre US$60 billion in 1990 to nearly US$500 billion today. Poland has not had a banking crisis in the transition period. It is the only EU country to have maintained positive growth in the latest turmoil.
For Poland, this is only a strong start on a long journey back to top European standards. Nothing meaningful was lost in its transition from Soviet-imposed communism: the country finally had the chance to show what it can do.
Conclusion? People react in different ways when those dungeon lights are turned on. Some prisoners start fighting each other. Others blame the West for their sorry state, ignoring the fact that, actually, they incarcerated themselves. And others stride out into the sunlight to start a new life.