On 7 October 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev visited Berlin for the celebration of the GDR 40th-anniversary, and said: “History punishes those who come too late” (Childs 2000): the statement criticised Honecker but was best suited as his own epitaph.
But let’s try and imagine what might have happened if Gorbachev’s perestroika had actually succeeded. Five years ago I wrote a paper developing this theme and presented it at a Conference in Warsaw. The paper illustrated how Gorbachev might have succeeded in achieving the radical reform of the Soviet political and economic system, the construction of market socialism, the re-structuring and acceleration (uskoreniye) of the Soviet economy, and the possible though unlikely continued existence of the USSR.
I should stress that this was not, or at least was not meant to be, an exercise in 20/20 hindsight. Alternative courses can be formulated without the possession of perfect foresight of the state of the world in 1985-1991. Nor is a change in Gorbachev’s initial conditions required, of the kind “If only he had come to power in 1974, at the height of the fourfold rise in the oil price ...”. This exercise was meant as a genuine counterfactual alternative. Its purpose is that of damning Gorbachev’s disastrous economic strategy and showing that he and his economic policies, more than anybody else’s doings, are ultimately responsible for the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union, for the failure of an alternative design of market socialism, and for the immense human cost of post-socialist Transition. A similar exercise, considering counter-factual alternatives to the actual course of Transition in Cental-Eastern Europe, is only outlined to suggest that Transition might have been handled at a lesser human cost.
In order to succeed, Gorbachev would have had to act swiftly, instead of practically wasting his first two years in power (1985-87), and lay down sound economic foundations for perestroika: eliminate repressed inflation, preferably through a confiscatory currency conversion; break state monopoly of foreign trade, introduce rouble convertibility on current account, liberalise trade, foster competition. By 1991 he would have also legalised private ownership and enterprise, given state managers bonuses geared to market performance, implemented small privatisation, commercialised state enterprises, begun some privatisation of large enterprises and banks. On Christmas Day 1991, instead of resigning as President of the Union, he could have celebrated the victory of economic perestroika.
What next? There would have been still thorny choices and therefore possible mistakes to be made, before completing Transition and after. Gorbachev would have needed continued vigilance and sound economic advice, for instance to avoid too rapid dis-inflation at inordinately high real interest rates, as happened in 1994-95, and the consequent recession; to avoid an unsustainable combination of overvalued exchange rate, high interest rate to support it, and a public debt increasing as a result of high debt service, as happened in 1998 under the IMF’s watch; to avoid the unnecessary cost to the budget of switching the pension system from PAYG to a funded system.
As a result of the good economic foundations of economic perestroika, and the avoidance of these kinds of subsequent pitfalls, income losses from the Transition recession would have been lower, and growth would have accelerated earlier and faster than it actually was and did. The welfare of Russians would have improved significantly and continuously as a result. The same reasoning applies to all other Transition economies that to a greater or lesser extent followed stabilisation and Transition paths out of sequence or to excess. It is impossible to have unanimity about whether the measure taken were or were not mistakes, and how serious, let alone quantify the gains. But pretending that there were no serious unnecessary mistakes in the Transition is neither reasonable nor respectable.
The improved economic performance would have generates political consensus, but not necessarily to the point of providing permanent democratic support for a political regime associated with significantly large state ownership and associated political values (of equality, solidarity, participation, etc.). In some Transition countries post-communist parties were returned to power in democratic elections (e.g. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia) after being defeated, but only intermittently, not permanently; some party alternation in power is an integral part of democracy. But non-persistent, intermittent market socialism cannot deliver its expected economic and social advantages. When democratic support for an ecomic system is lacking or is not permanent, then its maintenance over time requires necessarily forms of political repression. There is a high political price to pay for an economically successful and persistent market socialism – as confirmed by "market socialist" countries such as China, Vietnam, Belarus, Uzbekistan.
Would an economically successful Gorbachev have been able to hold together the Soviet Union? There would be economic advantages to be shared out, from holding it together. A continued Union would maintain and promote intra-Union trade volumes thanks to the single currency, and sustain inter-republic imbalances through transfers within the All-Union budget and inter-republic credits. An early initiative and widespread economic success, including internal and external convertibility of the rouble, would have lessened centrifugal forces. If some political and administrative autonomy was granted to the 15 republics as well, the chances of retaining the Union would have improved. But the Soviets had seldom solved ethnic conflicts, mostly they had only suppressed them (just as they had done with inflation). Independence aspirations would have made it difficult for Russia to retain close ties even with republics that economically had most to gain from continued integration, like Ukraine. The probability of holding together the Union would have been greater than zero, but not significantly greater.
Would a successful market-socialist Russia have been able to hold together CMEA/Comecon? Arguments similar to those for holding together the Soviet Union would apply, but would be much weaker. The international socialist division of labour had a bad name, in spite of Soviet subsidisation of its Comecon partners since 1974, by supplying oil and raw materials at below world prices. Memories and accusations of earlier Soviet exploitation through trade were still deeply ingrained. In January 1990 Comecon partners de facto destroyed it by trading freely rather than continue the old trade arrangements, even at the cost of paying higher prices for oil and materials. By September 1991 Comecon was officially dissolved. Comecon Soviet trade partners were already negotiating European Association Agreements and aid programmes with the European Community (now the European Union).
Gorbachev's hypothetical successful perestroika would not have led to Comecon survival. At most, perhaps, a couple of years earlier he might have been able to extract economic assistance from the West in exchange for his acquiescence to the re-unification of Germany – for which he got nothing at all – and for the Finlandisation of Eastern Europe – a prospect overtaken by events in 1989.
What difference would Gorbachev’s hypothetical successful perestroika have made in Russia? Only an alleviation of the pains of Transition in the 1990s; there would have been not very much difference in the 2000s, considering that in his second presidential term Putin had already reversed enterprise ownership trends, re-acquiring greater state control in many sectors and a majority stake in energy (Hanson, 2008). By comparison with the sensitivity of Russian performance to the price of oil, probably Gorbachev’s success would have been equivalent to a ten-year-long rise of $10 on the price of a barrel. (According to the Bank of Finland Research Department a $10 permanent increase raises Russia’s growth rate by 1%). The recent implosion of the US and global financial system had a far greater effect on Russia’s prospects.
What difference would Gorbachev's hypothetical successful perestroika have made to modern geopolitics? An earlier economically stronger Russia would have probably contained USA bids for the "American Century", thus sparing them the humiliation of their century ending so soon after it had barely begun. Certainly Georgia would not have responded to encouragement by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to attack Russia. But the Twin Towers had nothing to do with Russia, and it is impossible to tell whether the major armed conflicts that followed their attack – in Afghanistan and Iraq – would have been prevented by an economically stronger Russia. Most probably not.
Gorbachev’s and the whole Transition’s economic débacle clearly reduced the demand for socialism on a world scale, but his success would have made no difference for European social-democracy, as it would not have prevented the disintegration of the Italian left or the degeneration of British Labour into New Labour, nor favoured Zapatero’s victory in Spain. Probably both the European Union and NATO would have been smaller than they are now.
A Russian economy made stronger by an efficient Transition would have been less vulnerable to the contagion of global financial turmoil, both in the South East Asian crisis of 1997 (that was an important factor in the Russian crisis of 1998), and today. But a stronger Russia would have neither prevented such global financial crises, nor contributed much to their resolution.
We should leave the future to futurologists. In 1989 Fukuyama’s conjecture about The End of History was falsified before the ink had dried. All we know for sure, whether Gorbachev had or had not been successful in implementing economic perestroika, is that – as prophesised by a wall graffiti in London in 1991: "The future is not what it used to be".