High Costs of Empire Sink Soviet Union

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THE Soviet Union was guided by ideology and geopolitics, not economics, as it built its empire, a flaw that doomed it from the start, political experts say.

"It was counterproductive from the beginning," Oleg Bogomolov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Economic and Political Studies, said of the Soviet client-state policy. "It may have been justified ideologically but it was never justified economically."

The list of Soviet client states started with Mongolia in 1921 and gradually grew to encompass Eastern Europe, North Korea, and Cuba by the early 1960s. By the 1970s and '80s, the list expanded to include such states as Vietnam and Afghanistan in Asia; Syria and Iraq in the Middle East; Angola and Ethiopia in Africa; and Nicaragua and Grenada in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Statistics on financial outlays by the Soviet Union to the client states are unreliable, but amount to at least $40 billion over the last several decades, Mr. Bogomolov estimates. But much of the Soviet aid to friendly, so-called socialist countries came in the form of military weaponry, for which expenditure figures were sketchy at best. And even for other forms of aid, experts say, the data is unreliable because of the secrecy associated with the Communist system.

"Nobody kept accurate records of both military and economic aid," says Yelena Aryefieva, a researcher at Moscow's Institute for World Economics and International Relations. The statistics also don't accurately reflect the immense costs incurred by the Soviet Union by buying products, such as Cuban sugar, at prices several times higher than the world rate, while selling commodities to the client states, including oil and gas, at artificially low prices, she adds.

For all the money spent on its client states, the Soviet Union received little in return. But economic returns were never the driving force behind Soviet foreign policy. Most important were the principles of Marxism-Leninism, which ideologically bound Moscow to give assistance to other states seeking to "throw off the shackles of capitalism."

Moscow also felt compelled to take on foreign responsibilities due to the geopolitical chess game it played against the United States following World War II. "Military doctrine also played a role in the Soviet relations with Socialist countries," Bogomolov adds. "Because of the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West, the Soviet side was concerned about surrounding itself with a protective layer."

In spite of all the ideology involved in its relations with its client states, the Soviet Union did receive a few notable economic benefits, primarily from Eastern Europe. For example, rail cars produced in the former East Germany and Ikarus buses from Hungary are widely used throughout the country. And though the cost was exorbitant, Cuban sugar is essential in a nation that has a population with an almost insatiable sweet tooth. Beginning of the end Beginning of the end

Some experts point to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan as the beginning of the end of the empire. Moscow's first large-scale entanglement in a colonial war underscored many of the inherent weaknesses in Moscow's imperial policies.

"It was not in line with our economic capacities or resources," Bogomolov says, referring not only to the Afghan invasion, but also to the Soviet proxy fights in Ethiopia and Angola during the 1970s and '80s. …