The Great Transformation

The Great Transformation

Mini Teaser: Four years have now passed since the implosion of the communist state in Poland set in train a process that led to the collapse of the other Central European communist states.

by Author(s): Zbigniew Brzezinski

For the Ukrainians, perhaps it could be the notion of Ukraine eventually becoming, and being accepted by its Western neighbors as a Central European state, and thus part of a community that is already moving closer to the West. That vision certainly would be more tangible to the western Ukrainians than to the eastern Ukrainians, but it might have wider appeal to the Ukrainians who wish to define their nationhood in terms that differentiate Ukraine from Russia.

For the Russians, perhaps, the appropriate vision might be one of becoming a partner of the United States, given the fascination with America that is today so widespread in Russia. But if Russia is to be "a partner" of the United States, America will have to be explicit in insisting that such a Russia be truly a post-imperial Russia, because only such a Russia can become genuinely democratic. The fact is that Russia has still a considerable distance to go in the painful process of adjusting to its new post-imperial reality, a process that was consummated in the case of Britain with the loss of India, in the case of France with the loss of Algeria, in the case of Turkey under Ataturk who defined the concept of a new, would-be modern, would-be European, Turkey. The process of post-imperial self-redefinition is a complicated and difficult one. One can understand why opposition and confusion surround this subject in today's tormented Russia; but the issue must be addressed.

A Differentiated Future

In the light of the responses to the first two questions, what reasonable expectations regarding the post-communist transformation might be entertained in terms of the foreseeable future--say, the next decade or so? It follows from the analysis already offered that the transformation will be differentiated--in kind and time--as well as difficult. But what is likely to be the overall pattern? Are all of the former communist states safely on the way to becoming pluralistic, free market democracies?

Before I hazard some rather arbitrary, personal judgments in response to this question, let me suggest a fourfold predictive framework:

The first category includes countries with essentially positive futures, by which is meant countries in which it would take something altogether unforeseeable and, at the present time, rather improbable for them to be diverted from the process of becoming viable pluralistic democracies.

The second category includes countries whose prospects over the next ten years look somewhat better than even, but in which a reversal, indeed a political and/or economic failure, still cannot be excluded.

The third category involves countries whose political and economic futures, in my judgment, are likely to be still unresolved beyond this decade and into the next century.

Finally a fourth category, essentially an extension of the third, comprises countries whose futures currently, and into the foreseeable future, look distinctly unpromising.

In this classification, as already indicated, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary fall into the first category, as do probably also Slovenia and Estonia. Of these, the first three are likely to be members of the European Community and of NATO within a decade, and even perhaps within this century. Without minimizing their internal difficulties, their futures appear largely predetermined, although Hungary or Estonia could be affected adversely by some external complications (notably, ethnic problems). In any case, the first three can be seen as about to enter, or as entering, Phase 3 on the table on p.4, while the latter two are in Phase 2.

Even the likely success of the leading three however should not obscure the fact that it will take many years before the gap is significantly narrowed between the standards of living of the richer West and even its most promising post-communist neighbors. If one assumes, for example, that Germany and Austria will grow at 2 percent per annum, while Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia will grow twice as fast, at 4 percent p/a, it would still take 30 years in the case of Czechoslovakia, 46 years of Hungary, and 63 years of Poland for the gap in the respective GNP per capita to be closed. Even if the rates of growth were 2 percent and 8 percent respectively, the years required would still be 12, 17, and 23 for the respective Central European populations. Obviously the prospects are much dimmer still for the countries listed below in the second, third, and fourth categories.

The second category--countries whose futures are generally positive but which are politically and economically still vulnerable--includes Slovakia, Croatia (if it does not get entangled in a new war with Serbia), Bulgaria, perhaps Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Kirgizikstan, and Turkmenistan (the latter two because of indigenous economic potential). Some of them--e.g. Latvia or Bulgaria--may be nearing Phase 2 but the others are still navigating through Phase 1.

The countries which fall into the third category--those whose political and economic futures are likely to be still unresolved for a decade or more--are, first and foremost Russia--and then Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Finally, those in the fourth category, whose futures for a variety of reasons look rather grim, are: Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Moldova, and Tajikistan. None of the above can be said to be very advanced (or successful) in traversing Phase 1; some may not even have entered it; and most of them are, in fact, still governed by their former communist elites who masquerade under new labels, but whose commitment to a pluralist democracy and sensitivity to its nuances is still questionable.

Of those in the uncertain (third) category, Russia is, of course, the most important. One has to recognize some positive trends in ongoing Russian developments. The process of drafting the constitution has been moving forward, albeit with many difficulties. One can expect at least an initial formula regarding a new constitutional order to emerge from this exercise, and that in itself will be a step forward in the institutionalization of a democratic system. There has certainly been general democratization, particularly of the upper-metropolitan levels of Russian society. In a number of the large cities, democracy is an operational reality, though it lacks genuinely pervasive institutionalization. There has also been some privatization of the economy, and initial steps toward its stabilization. Also, at the top political levels, both President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev have been willing to denounce--at least rhetorically--traditional imperial aspirations, thereby breaking with a past that would otherwise certainly inhibit genuine democratization.

But there are also contradictory trends: economic chaos is a reality; there is no effective monetary policy, inflation is still extraordinarily high, unemployment is rising; the writ of the government is effectively limited to a few metropolitan centers and does not run throughout the country; there is a lack of policy cohesion and consistency; the much hallowed privatization accounts for only about 50,000 of Russia's approximately 300,000 small shops, with most of those privatized located in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod; there is massive diversion of Western funds and aid by the remnants of well-positioned nomenklatura and by the new class of middlemen; and many, probably most, of the new capitalists represent parasitic wealth, channeled mainly into consumption and not into productive investment.

Also complicating the economic picture is the evident renewal of imperial aspirations, which increases the likelihood of intensifying tensions with Ukraine and also generates problems with some of the other neighboring states. Most noteworthy here is the use of economic leverage and of military pressure to preserve informally the essential elements of the Kremlin's former imperial status. Quite symptomatic of Moscow's continued reluctance to accept Kiev's independence as an enduring fact was the contemptuous dismissal of it (in the words spoken to me in 1993 by a senior Russian policymaker) as "that conditional entity called Ukraine."

All of this justifies--and generates--some uncertainties regarding the future. One can expect, most probably, continued democratization, but in a context of inconsistent reforms that run the risk of producing periodic phases of intensifying anarchy--and thus the temptation to resort eventually to more authoritarian solutions. As a result, Russia does not fit either category one or category two, but has to be placed--reluctantly and regrettably--in category three. The same is true of Ukraine, whose independence is still in jeopardy and whose internal transformation has been lagging even more badly.

The foregoing cumulatively suggests that history is still open-ended as far as the final outcome of the post-communist transformation is concerned. As of now, politically and economically successful liberal democracy is not a foreordained outcome, except perhaps for five out of the twenty-seven post-communist states.

What Else Should the West Do?

It is time to turn to the last of the four questions posed at the onset; namely, what should be the posture of the West, and of the United States in particular?

The first need is still for a long-term and comprehensive strategy that integrates geopolitical and economic objectives. As yet, it simply does not exist. The needed strategy should be neither Russo-centric nor Russo-phobic. It must deal with the post-communist area as a whole, but recognize the significantly different stages of change within it. To develop and sustain such a comprehensive policy, the United States should press for the creation of a standing G-7 strategic planning board, one capable of monitoring changes and of advocating the needed division of labor among the principal Western powers, perhaps on a geographical basis. For example, Japan with its hesitations about aiding Russia, could be encouraged to be helpful by concentrating on some other formerly Soviet regions, such as Ukraine. Such a standing strategic board should also interact with pertinent representatives of the affected countries.

Essay Types: Essay