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Gorbachev?€™s Abandoned ?€?European Home?€™

Twenty-five years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Twenty years ago, at the Congress of People’s Deputies, he was elected as the first and — as it turned out — the last president of the Soviet Union. A few days ago, state-run pollster VTsIOM published the results of a survey showing that Russians are gradually taking a more positive view of the perestroika period. Today, 41 percent of those surveyed hold a negative attitude toward perestroika, whereas five years ago that number was 56 percent. Even with this positive trend, it will be many years before Russia and the West give a common appraisal of the events between 1985 and 1991.

The difference in perceptions is easily explained. Many Russians acknowledge that the Soviet Union’s fatal problems began long before Gorbachev became general secretary on March 11, 1985. But there is no getting around the fact that Gorbachev himself came to symbolize that collapse. For the West, Gorbachev symbolizes the start of a new epoch, even if 20 years later the outlook is not quite as rosy as when the Berlin Wall came down. In general, the expectations of both sides did not bear out, but for different reasons.

One of the more important points of Gorbachev’s legacy is his idea of a common European home. Almost nobody mentions it today, although there was a time when it seemed that nothing could stand in the way of its realization. After all, Moscow had rejected its totalitarian ideology and was looking for common ground with the West. Just the same, in the midst of that euphoria, sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf authored the 1990 book “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” in which he wrote: “If there is a common European house or home to aim for, it is … not Gorbachev’s but one to the West of his and his successors’ crumbling empire. … Europe ends at the Soviet border, wherever that may be.” Dahrendorf defined Europe as a political community where “small and medium-sized countries try to determine their destiny together. A superpower has no place in their midst, even if it is not an economic and perhaps no longer a political giant.” Nobody has yet described the situation more accurately.

The original wave of European Union expansion, first anticipated in the early 1990s, focused on technical and legal criteria for membership without any discussion of how far that expansion might extend — that is, without defining Europe’s borders. It was considered politically incorrect to do so. But at some point, most people understood by default that Europe and the European Union were synonymous. At least it was assumed that the gradual increase in the number of states adopting European rules and practices — the system by which the European Union expanded — would eventually transform the geographic territory of Europe into a common space.

As a country that played the decisive role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, could Russia have become a part of Europe? During a brief stage of democratic euphoria, Moscow was ready to merge with the European-Atlantic community on practically any terms. During these friendly times, the door was formally open for Russia, but at the same time nobody thought seriously that Russia would ultimately be accepted into that community. While Russia remained weak and strove toward integration, Europe savored its “trophies” and assumed that Russia had no other options but to adopt Western values and institutions. But when the EU had just about finished swallowing up Central and Eastern Europe, it became clear that Russia, recovering from its geopolitical knockout, reacquired its superpower ambitions. Despite Russia’s weak position internally and globally in the early and mid-1990s, it was unable to part with its self-image as a superpower.

Now Moscow does not strive for integration but wants to see itself as an independent power center and as an alternative to Brussels. Ambitions were split along opposing paths. Russia either could become a competitor to Europe in the global arena — as the Soviet Union essentially was along with its Warsaw Pact allies — or else become a full-fledged member of Europe on an equal basis with Brussels — a second power center within a common European house. Gorbachev contemplated the second version, but the collapse of the Soviet Union buried those hopes. Now, Russia lacks the will, resources and ability to compete with the EU but still sincerely believes that it can achieve this status in the near future.

Meanwhile, the European community is in a deep state of confusion. Europe’s ability to function will always be limited as long as Russia is not included as an equal partner, and the campaign among Eastern European members of the EU to isolate Russia only undermines efforts to increase European unity. It is no coincidence that the idea to bring Russia into NATO has been raised from time to time in Europe and the United States. The most recent example is a letter from a group of influential German politicians headed by former Defense Minister Volker Ruehe.

During the past 20 years, we didn’t witness the unification of Europe, but the continual shift of its borders to the east. Though that phenomenon was the focus of world politics in the past, now both a weakened Russia and a stronger Europe are under the threat of becoming marginalized because the main events of global politics are taking place elsewhere on the planet. Thus, the attempt “to determine destiny together” is of vital importance not for “small and medium-sized countries” as Dahrendorf wrote, but for Russia and the rest of Europe, which are themselves gradually becoming “small and medium-sized” compared to the rest of the world.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly rising Asia, shifting the most important global power centers far from Europe, Gorbachev’s notion of a common European and Russian home might be sidelined. Even if this house is one day built, it may be located in the boondocks of global politics.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

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