Staunton, April 17 – After the August 1991 putsch and the exit of the three Baltic republics, there was no possibility that the USSR could have been saved even with the signing of a new union treaty, Nikolay Kulbaka says, because such an accord would have given the republics far more power and because Russia could not have met their demands for help.
As a result, even if such an agreement had been signed, it would not have prevented conflicts among the nations of the Soviet space or precluded the demise of the USSR at some point, possibly in a more violent Yugoslav-style manner than the relatively peaceful demise it suffered (vtimes.io/2021/04/17/mozhno-viiti-pochemu-razvalilsya-sovetskii-soyuz-a4498).
That experience has important lessons for those who regret the end of the USSR or who assume that something similar could be rebuilt, the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service economist says. It shows that the only way this could happen would be by force and that this would lead to far more violence than even the post-Soviet states have seen.
Today, Kulbaka says, many say that the Soviet Union was doomed from the start because of the formation of union republics with the right of free exit. There is no good way to test that proposition. But what needs to be remembered, he continues, is that the republics were created not simply to hold them in but to allow for taking in more when the revolution spread.
Soviet leaders through the 1940s were focused on the latter and did not think that any exit was possible. Stalin absorbed the Tuvin Peoples Republic in 1944 and wanted to add two parts of Iran, the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kurdish Peoples Republic, but was blocked from doing so by the West.
According to the Moscow scholar, “Stalin planned gradually to unite to the Soviet Union the countries of Eastern Europe.” And he suggests that it is significant that the Warsaw Pact which defined them as independent countries was not signed until after his death.
Kulbaka argues that the Soviet Union fell apart because the countries of that region, led by Poland and its Solidarity movement showed that the Soviet bloc could be held together only by force and the strivings of the Baltic countries to recover their independence demonstrated to the rest of the republics that they could achieve independence as well.
Both these things became possible because Moscow showed that it was no longer willing to rely on force alone to keep the bloc and the republics within its system and no longer had the economic resources to win them over by offering greater benefits if they decided to remain than they would have if they in fact left.
That meant that Mikhail Gorbachev could have stopped these interrelated processes only by force, and he was unwilling to use it because such force would have prevented the development of better relations with the advanced countries, relations he and the Soviet Union needed to develop.
But even those who became convinced that the USSR could not have survived in its form then include many who think that a new union treaty could have been signed and implemented had there been no putsch, Kulbaka says. They likely would have signed such an accord in that event, but it is very unlikely that this would have done more than slow the disintegration.
It is certainly the case that “the republics were ready to create a new Union but on more favorable conditions” and with their having the power to insist that these conditions be met. But that meant that while Russia would have retained its empire as it were, the imperial possessions would be in the driver’s seat.
They would have been in the position to demand that the center provide them with vastly more aid than it had, and because the center, as a result of falling oil prices and the stagnation of the economy, was not in a position to do so, Moscow would either have been compelled to turn to force or alternatively allow the republics to depart even with a new union treaty.
“It is possible,” he writes, “that if there had not been the putsch, the Union for a certain time would have been able to survive but only at the price of the pressure on Russia of all the remaining republics becoming stronger.” That would have made the October 1993 conflict child’s play in comparison.
Boris Yeltsin thought he could save part of the empire by uniting the three Slavic republics which were relatively better off; but that plan failed as well because the Russian leadership lacked the resources to help even them or the cleverness to promote its interests via soft power.
Republics with resources like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan knew they could make a go of it on their own. And the others assumed that they could get help from elsewhere if they were independence given that Russia wasn’t in a position to help them to the extent they needed.
“Of course,” Kulbaka says, “another path of unification remained with Russia, the imperial one, involving the forcing of the republics to unit by force. In short by good words and a pistol. But using the pistol turned out to be impossible as the August 1991 putsch demonstrated.” That was fortunate for all concerned.
It was in 1991 that “the Russian Empire really died because the Soviet Union had been in many ways its continuation.” That also means that “today’s Russia is not entirely an empire however much it tries to appear as one.” And it means that any effort to restore the empire would require force and create even more problems.
Nationality conflicts would not disappear but rather become “even stronger” because “the new union state hardly would be in a position to calm such hostility. Happily, this has not happened, and ‘the divorce’ took place comparatively peacefully especially in comparison with the Yugoslav scenario.”
“One wants to believe,” Kulbaka concludes, “that we have already passed this fork in the road once and for all.”