Fifteen years ago, East and West Germans proved the pessimists wrong. With a mixture of joy and relief, they pulled down the Berlin Wall, and with it the edifice of the Soviet empire. Stalinist tyranny, which had seemed so immovable, disintegrated. It was the most rapid transformation of Europe since the First World War.
Overhyped neoconservative Francis Fukuyama later ludicrously dubbed this ‘the End of History’. Whatever their reservations about such rhetoric, many to his left expected a flowering of human rights. In an impressive intellectual sleight of hand, the privateers blurred the rather important difference between the free market and democracy. Amid the jubilation, it was easy to be suckered.
Conversely, some greeted the collapse of ‘really existing socialism’ with misplaced regret. In the face of a remorseless neoliberal consensus that there was no alternative to the injustices of the market, the ‘socialist sixth of the world’ had been an intellectual safety blanket. Though its sympathisers dwindled with successive repressions, enough good working class activists had kept the faith to make its passing traumatic.
Their mourning rarely acknowledged the role of workers in these political revolutions. For example, in Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes the demonstrations that swept East Germany in Autumn 1989 are but an aside. The huge miners’ strikes in the USSR in summer 1989 and spring 1991 are missing. Likewise the fact that hardline Polish president Jaruzelski was forced into negotiations with the outlawed Solidarity union by such strikes. Or that in Czechoslovakia, Husak fell amid street demonstrations and a one-hour general strike; that in Albania a general strike also did for the regime; and that Romania’s feared dictator Ceausescu was executed by firing squad after a spontaneous uprising against his orders to shoot demonstrators.
If these were really workers’ states-run for the working class, by the working class – it would be hard to understand workers’ antipathy to them. It would be like hitting yourself – pointless and counterproductive. It’s true that a layer of the old regime co-opted dissidents to head off radical change – limiting it to ‘a revolution from above’ – but that does not mean that the process was entirely bureaucratic.
While workers were not ‘in the saddle’ under Stalinism, they certainly aren’t now either. In 1989, 14 million people in the USSR lived in poverty. By 1998, that figure was 147 million. In that time average Russian life expectancy dipped by three years. The corporate looting of the former Stalinist regimes was rapid and relentless. Between 1993 and 1995, 20,000 of Russia’s 27,000 state enterprises were sold off for about 10 percent of their real value. In the whole of the former USSR and Eastern bloc only two countries had a higher output in 1999 than ten years previously. The neoliberal ‘medicine’ made the sickness worse: unemployment rocketed, living standards spiralled downwards. So the IMF and World Bank upped the dose.
Apart from the international speculators and asset strippers, there was a small group of domestic beneficiaries of this – a batch of oligarchs, mainly from the top echelons of Stalinist industry, and a political leadership that had changed only in so much as they had dumped their party insignia.
With the intention of keeping Roman Abramovich off at least one back page, let’s turn to three examples of the latter – Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbeyev and Saparmurat Niyazov. Leaders of the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan respectively, each rose through the ranks of the Communist Party to the leadership of their ‘people’s republics’ and retained power after the collapse of the USSR.
Nazarbeyev’s presidency was confirmed in an uncontested election in 1991. Since then he has engineered a sham referendum to extend his term. In 2000, after elections in which his chief rival was banned, parliament granted him immunity from prosecution. This is not particularly surprising, as he created most of the parties that make up the Kazakh parliament. But just to be sure, in September’s elections 60 percent of ballot boxes were sealed before voting was due to begin, according to international monitors. One in ten polling stations dispensed with the pretence – and the ballot boxes – entirely.
The desire to proliferate political parties in order to centralise power is shared by Karimov. This profoundly pragmatic dictator initially supported the hardline 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, then switched sides to support Boris Yeltsin’s counter-coup. Having only received 86 percent of the presidential poll in 1992, he cracked down on opposition and media and by 2000 received a 92 percent vote. Even his opponent said that he would vote for him!
Niyazov – or Turkmenbashi (‘leader of the Turkmen’) as he prefers to be known – is also intolerant of opposition parties, media and trade unions. He has even banned subversive activities such as opera, ballet and the circus. Your run-of-the-mill egotist might be content with having the capital’s central boulevard, airport and January (yes, January) named after him, or with his image on every street corner and vodka bottle. But Niyazov evidently feels that the descent into self-parody would not be complete without a multitude of guarded statues of himself – one of which is made of gold and rotates so that it always faces the sun.
You can probably guess the web of corruption that flows from such governance. But the persecution of Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, also exposes western complicity with these regimes. He was sacked after complaining to the foreign office that MI6 was using information, passed on by the CIA, that had been obtained by the Uzbek regime through the torture of prisoners. Such torture – on top of mass arrests, show-trials and executions – includes boiling dissidents to death. It is for this reason that Uzbekistan was ranked as the worst violator of human rights in 2002. Yet the previous year the US took Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan off its Countries of Particular Concern list, and multiplied their military aid, in return for support in the invasion of Afghanistan.
Funnily enough, the right wing ideologues have now shed all their crocodile tears for the peoples of the former Soviet empire. No longer do we hear about their poverty, though it has often increased, or their suffering under authoritarianism, though in various forms it endures. There is a wall of silence. And it’s another wall deserving of demolition.
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