Lithuanians mark their Soviet exit.

Photographer: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

The Soviet Union Had a Brexit of Its Own

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent former dissident who now lives in the U.K., has long likened the European Union to the Soviet Union, a country he hated and fought -- a milder version of it, to be sure, but in its own way ideological and undemocratic. Few were willing to listen, but now, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, is saying the EU is beginning to disintegrate just like the Soviet Union. The analogy deserves some discussion.

QuickTake Brexit

There's something in the post-Brexit air that recalls the Soviet collapse. As President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, put it this week, "it would probably be unreasonable to draw direct parallels, but a certain, let's say, turbulent, murky and unpredictable time is upon us."

Unlike Peskov, Le Pen has no first-hand experience of the Soviet Union's final years. Perhaps that's why she has no problem with direct parallels. In a recent interview, Le Pen argued the EU is as impossible to fix as the Communist superpower:

They are doing exactly what they did in the Soviet Union. When the results were not in line with expectations, [the Soviets] would say it didn’t work because there was not enough Communism. And the European Union is the same. Each time there is a failure they say it is because there is not enough Europe.

To nationalists within Europe, the EU with its supranational institutions resembles the Soviet Union in many ways. It's ruled mainly by an unelected bureaucracy, it has a weak parliament, it propagates political correctness. Most importantly, however, they are worried about what they see as its attempts to erase national identities and promote a sort of European super-identity in its place. Within that narrative, what happened in the U.K. is seen as the beginning of the kind of nationalist awakening that tore the Soviet Union apart. What Le Pen calls the inevitable "people's spring" would then be akin to the so-called "parade of sovereignties" of 1988-1991, when all the Soviet republics and even some constituent parts of core Russia itself decided they wanted to be national states.

It's easy to get carried away with this. Those independence movements multiplied against the background of an economic crisis brought on by cheap oil. It was, of course, harsher than anything the EU has experienced -- just as the dominance of the totalitarian Soviet Union was more repressive and destructive than anything in the wildest imaginings of euroskeptics. Economic misery made it easy for nationalist populists in Ukraine and the Baltic states to argue that the central government in Moscow was squeezing the republics dry. Greeks have at times appeared to be on a similar trajectory. "Under the conditions of a crisis and a famine, a kind of jealousy virus suddenly spread," Sergei Shakhrai, a former aide to Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, recalled. "In the Baltics they screamed, 'Enough feeding Moscow!' and in Russia, they didn't want to 'feed' Central Asia and Georgia.'"

That sounds a lot like Brexiteers' arguments about the EU budget and the benefit-abusing EU immigrants. Yet after the Soviet republics gained their independence, prosperity didn't immediately materialize. Instead, their economies tanked, in part because of a collapse in established value chains and the emergence of national borders and customs barriers.

Then too, the independence movements became a cloak for the kind of racism and other discrimination that has been evident in the U.K. after the vote and described poignantly in a Facebook post by a Lithuanian teenager. "I think somehow people who were already racists have received more plausibility to be openly racists after U.K. has gained its 'independence,'" she wrote. "Because it became okay to tell me that 'Now You Will Have to Leave, because we voted Out and we want you gone.'"

The teenager, Egle Matulionyte, is too young to remember the same kind of sentiment directed at Russians around the time Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence in March, 1990. Russian speakers in the streets of Lithuanian cities were called "occupiers" -- a reference to Stalin's occupation of the Baltics after World War II -- and told to go home.

If Brexit gives rise to a wave of departures from the EU, it's easy to imagine the leaders of the biggest countries gathering behind closed doors to negotiate the final divorce terms, the way the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus gathered at Belovezhskaya Pushcha in late 1991. And just as easy to imagine their successors calling it a tragedy and an act of treachery, as they did in post-Soviet states.

British "remainers" are already saying this about Brexit and its architects. And the U.S. establishment is worried now that the erosion of the EU may be almost as destabilizing to the current world order as the Soviet Union's was in the early 1990s.

The analogy has an obvious fatal flaw, though. The Soviet Union was based on coercion. The EU -- whatever may be said of Germany's economic pressure on weaker members -- is not. After Lithuania's secession, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev immediately declared it illegal. He tried economic sanctions against the secessionist republic, but they didn't work, and in January, 1991, troops were sent to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Thirteen Lithuanians died during the futile attacks. Meanwhile, in Moscow, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the use of force: Despite the nationalist character of the Lithuanian revolution, Russians at the time considered it a step toward their own freedom from Communism.

Imagine Brussels so much as organizing a protest against the U.K.'s decision to secede and attempting economic restrictions to punish it. Imagine pro-Brexit demonstrations in Berlin, inspired by the hope that brave Britons would blaze the trail toward freedom for the rest of Europe.

There's no moral high ground to claim in leaving the EU, as there was when the Baltics quit the Soviet Union, ending years of occupation. There's no aging, but still dangerous, serpent to fight -- just an open door to bang on.

There are, however, lessons to be learned from the Soviet Union's collapse. Poorly managed superstates -- also known as empires -- tend to fall apart. Yet jealousy, racism and a stubborn desire to go it alone do not lead to riches. The Baltic states found relative economic prosperity in the EU, a union they freely chose to join. Though they were the first to shake the Soviet Union's foundations, they will probably be among the last to leave the EU if it's dissolved.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net