Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who ended the Cold War and forever ended the threat of a global nuclear holocaust, has a simple answer for those who continue to blame him for the collapse of the Soviet Union and for “giving away” the former Soviet satellite states to the West. “What did I give away?” Gorbachev asks. “I gave Poland to the Poles and Czechoslovakia to the Czechs and Slavs.” And as it turned out, Russia went to the Russians as well.
Gorbachev never tires of reminding people of his political program at the time that the Berlin Wall fell: “We made an agreement [with Western leaders] to build a free Europe, a unified system of security … that would serve the interests of Germans, Russians, Europe and the whole world.” That is the principle value of perestroika, glasnost and Gorbachev’s “new thinking”: Every individual was given the chance to determine his own path. The only problem is that everyone chose different paths and traveled down differing roads over the past two decades.
Now, 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell Nov. 9, 1989, we see how much Europe and Asia have expanded and become stronger, while Russia has declined and continues to lag behind.
From the moment that the Cold War ended, the West started expanding and strengthening its two principal economic, political and security structures — NATO and the European Union. NATO experienced three waves of expansion, adding 12 new states and bringing its total number of members up to 28. The EU also expanded three times, bringing its number of member states to 27 with a combined population of almost 500 million. The number of countries aspiring to join both organizations also increased.
The East has gone through its own period of intense development. It has become an engine of growth for the global economy. China began its unprecedented perestroika even before the Gorbachev era. In 1990, the size of China’s economy ranked No. 11 in terms of gross domestic product, and today it is No. 3. Even during the current crisis, China has maintained a GDP growth rate of about 8 percent. As a whole, Asia took advantage of the end of the Cold War to open its doors to globalization and to become the second-largest economic center in the world after the combined force of the United States and the EU. The other major power in the East, India, has also strengthened both its democracy — the largest in the world — and its economy since the Berlin Wall fell.
In contrast to the successes in the East and West, Russia — the country that did so much to inspire all these changes — has ended up the biggest loser in the post-Cold War era. Twenty years later, the country has experienced a triple defeat. First, Russia has failed to modernize its economy or social sphere. Second, it has not been able to build an effective political system, creating instead a one-man authoritarian regime. Russia has lost its international reputation and its former superpower status, leaving it almost entirely without allies or the support of global public opinion.
The structure of Russia’s economy has significantly worsened over the last 20 years, and it continues to deteriorate. Fully 86 percent of Russia’s exports, constituting up to one-third of the country’s entire GDP, consist of raw materials, while 80 percent of the country’s imports are finished products. By comparison, Soviet-era raw material exports accounted for only 48 percent of GDP. Today, hydrocarbon exports account for up to 70 percent of Russia’s consolidated budget income. More than 70 percent of all shares traded on the Russian stock market are for companies from the raw materials sector.
Moreover, every attempt to create a modern, high-tech economy has ended in failure. The average Russian income remains at almost the same level as it was 20 years ago, while 20 percent of Russians now live below the poverty line. A mere 10 percent of the population earns more than 50 percent of all wealth in the country, and in 2008 the country’s 53 wealthiest Russians owned capital equaling 30 percent of the national GDP. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Russia dropped 12 places since last year, down to 63rd of 132 countries. For the first time, Russia fell behind countries such as Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and even Azerbaijan.
Similar declines were seen in recent years in the areas of democracy and human rights. According to Freedom House, Russia moved from being a “free” state in the early 1990s to becoming firmly entrenched on the list of “unfree” states. According to a democracy rating conducted by The Economist magazine, in 2008 Russia found itself at the record-low 108th place among 167 countries. The picture is similarly bleak for ratings of freedom of speech, freedoms of nongovernmental organizations and so on.
This degradation has not been lost on Russia’s neighbors, which are distancing themselves as much as possible from Moscow. Instead, they consider Western institutions to be the better model for development. Only five former Soviet republics have relatively good ties with Russia — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — and even they are taking cautious steps backward. The other former Soviet republics have either distanced themselves from Moscow or else broken ranks with Russia completely. The Kremlin is rapidly losing its two major means of influencing others — the “hard power” of economic and military incentives and threats and the “soft power” of attracting partners through its own example, culture and policies.
In short, Moscow is finding itself increasingly isolated from the international community. While the rest of the world is commemorating the 20th-year anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia is left wondering why it has so little to celebrate.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.