The Return to History: The Breakup of the Soviet Union

Article excerpt

SINCE 1989 events in Central and Eastern Europe have given rise to a number of questions--and false hopes--about the alternatives to communism in countries that have been ruled by Marxist-Leninist governments for many decades. The dissolution of communist regimes in the former Warsaw Pact countries and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union make the question of the alternatives into a central issue of current international politics. They also pose some tough challenges for political analysts about the limits of their own professional expertise.

It is obvious that the defeat of communism is primarily seen in the West through an ideological prism. It is equally obvious that such a prism may sometimes impose triumphalist distortions on the interpretive faculties of the observer. Thus in the rush of the initial enthusiasm over the demise of communism, some Western analysts went so far as to announce the End of History. Finally--so they argued--liberal democracy, with the free market as its mainstay, had won its ultimate victory. After defeating fascism and Nazism in World War 11, Western liberalism had triumphed over the other alternative ideology confronting it, communism. No other system or ideology could ever successfully challenge it. The Sons of Light had finally vanquished the Sons of Darkness. Gloria in excelsis.

Actual developments in Eastern Europe and the currently unfolding drama in the former Soviet Union itself, however, advise caution. Although there is no doubt that the communist system as such--a one-party dictatorship coupled with a planned command economy--is dead and buried in Central and Eastern Europe (China, Vietnam, and North Korea may be a different story), it becomes less and less clear whether the emerging alternative is a democratic and free-market society. Even in the brief period since the autumn of 1989, clear differences in developments in several postcommunist societies suggest that not all these societies are traveling on the same tracks or even necessarily moving in the same direction. Czechoslovakia and Romania, for example, show completely different patterns of development.

If one begins to look more carefully at these differences, as well as at the vastly different course taken by the various former Soviet republics, it becomes clear that the most pronounced determinants in these different developments are historical factors. Far from seeing an end of history, Eastern Europe now goes through a massive return of history and to history. Past structures and ideologies become a more reliable guide to the general contour of things to come than any other indicator, just as pre-1914 atlases give a better picture of the tangled conflicts emerging in post-communist societies (for example, Yugoslavia) than recent atlases. Paradoxically, they are more up to date precisely because they are older. And anyone who has studied the Balkan wars of the 1910s is better equipped to understand the current developments in Yugoslavia than anyone conversant only with recent GNP or other indicators of these societies.

Taking the Long View

In assessing the meaning of this return to history, it is helpful to try to fit the developments of the past few years into a broader historical perspective. Otherwise, the picture is fragmented, and the fragments do not make much sense, nor are they helpful in trying to formulate policies for the future. What we are witnessing is, in historical terms, much more encompassing and complex than the mere disintegration of communism. In the wake of World War I, three centuries-old continental empires collapsed: the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian.

While the collapse of the first two empires was final, the reverberations of the collapse are still very much with us in the form of lingering regional conflicts. In the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil war in Lebanon, the Greek-Turkish conflict in and over Cyprus, and even some aspects of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti dispute are, in essence, disputes between successor states of the Ottoman Empire over the heritage left by it. …