Thursday, October 31, 2013

The USSR and the EU

Ivan Krastev has a helpful 2012 comparison of the situation of the Soviet Union in its final phase in The European dis-Union: Lessons from the Soviet collapse Eurozine 07/26/2013/(IWM Post Jan-April 2012):

The final and most disturbing lesson coming out of the study of Soviet collapse is that, in times of threats of disintegration, politicians should bet on flexibility and constrain their natural urge for rigidity and enduring solutions (which, if and when they fail, can accelerate the momentum to disintegration). Unfortunately, at present, European decision-makers are trying to save the Union via policy solutions that radically limit both national governments and the public's choices. Accordingly, voters in countries like Italy and Greece can change governments, but they cannot change policies: economic decision-making is de facto removed from electoral politics.

The expectations are that the new politics of fiscal discipline will reduce political pressure on the EU. But while experts can agree or disagree with the pros and cons of the austerity package, what is more important is that rigidity will automatically accelerate the crisis, and thus make the survival of the Union more difficult. Ten years ago, European decision-makers decided not to introduce any mechanism for allowing a country to leave the common currency, so as to make the break-up of the eurozone impossible. It is clear now that this decision has made the eurozone more vulnerable. In a similar manner, the Soviets constructed their Union with the intention of making it unbreakable, but it was this very rigidity that contributed to its falling apart.

The German poet-dissident Wolf Biermann wrote many years ago: "I can only love what I am also free to leave." Today's European policy-makers have forgotten this truth. By following inflexible policies that make the price of exit unbearably high, they are increasing rather than limiting risk. For in a major crisis – as, again, the Soviet collapse teaches – the popular response to "there is no alternative" can readily become – any alternative is better.
The Soviet Union is also an important example of countries that relatively recently experienced the sudden disappearance of a common currency.

And, as Krastev stresses, the Soviet Union was an entity that was generally not considered in danger of immediate disintegration. Until it was:

The first lesson is also a paradox: namely, the belief (backed by economists, and shared by Europe's political class) that the Union cannot disintegrate is also one of the major risks of disintegration. The last years of the Soviet Union are the classic manifestation of this dynamic. The perception that disintegration is "unthinkable" could tempt policy-makers to embrace anti-EU policies or rhetoric for short-term advantage, in the belief that "nothing really bad can happen" in the long term.
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