I strongly recommend taking a look at Mary Sarotte’s new book, “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.” Sarotte focuses on the events in 1989 that caused the most repressive state apparatus in Eastern Europe to, in essence, give up the ghost and allow its citizenry to leave. [Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Sarotte for more than 15 years and will happily testify about her sheer scholarly fabulousness at the drop of a hat.] The award-winning author of “1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe” focuses her latest book on the drivers from below that let to the collapse of the Berlin Wall — or, as she puts it in her introduction:
This evidence not only makes the accidental and contingent nature of the opening of the Wall plain but also reveals that the people who brought about the fall of the Wall on November 9 were, by and large, not internationally known politicians. Rather, they were provincial figures, deputies rather than bosses, and even complete unknowns.
And it this fact that will haunt Russia’s Vladimir Putin as long as he stays in power. The thing about the collapse of the East German regime is how sudden it was. I was in East Berlin in the fall of 1989, and there was no inkling of a regime in trouble. Compared to other Warsaw Pact countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, East Germany’s civil society movement was much smaller and more fragmented. East Germany’s protests grew out of a weekly prayer vigil in Leipzig in the fall of 1989, but according to Sarotte, the Stasi estimated that there were only a few hundred activists in the entire city at that time. In other words, despite structural reasons for the regime to be concerned, the most extensive domestic intelligence apparatus in the world couldn’t predict the outbreak of mass protests.
It might sound foolish to compare 1989 East Germany with 2014 Russia. After all, Putin is perfectly comfortable with using force to expand his own domain. But while Putin is many things, an idiot is not one of them. He keeps his own personal wealth a big secret because he knows it’s a politically toxic fact. Russian prosperity is falling, not rising. His Ukraine adventure has caused the ruble to plummet and forced Russia’s central bank to expend a fifth of its hard currency reserves in a vain effort to halt its slide. Inflation and interest rates are both rising to uncomfortable levels. If oil continues to stay below $100 a barrel, Moscow will be unable to spend its way out of the problem.
Does this mean Putin’s regime is under threat? Not necessarily. But I suspect the possibility weighs on him. Putin had an up-close and personal view of the collapse of East Germany, as he was a KGB agent stationed in Dresden in the fall of 1989. The fact that a more disorganized and fragmented opposition was able to bring down East Germany’s Stalinist regime, combined with the recent tendency of spontaneous protests flaring up across the world, has to be a cause of constant concern. As Forbes’ Anna Borschevskaya concludes:
Today in Russia people have access to more information than in the Soviet era, despite Putin’s rampant censorship. Liberal opposition is small, but it is fighting back. German Gref, head of Russia’s biggest lender Sberbank, has repeatedly warned about the dangers of Russia’s current economic inefficiencies reminiscent of the Soviet times. “We have inconceivable social costs in the area of public administration,” he said last month according to Moscow Times in a speech to investors and senior officials at the VTB Russia Calling investment forum.Putin promised to bring stability and prosperity, but as the economy keeps plummeting, more people will start asking themselves if he delivered on his promise. Russia’s history generally does not lend itself to optimism. Whether freedom and democracy will come to Russia anytime soon is an open question. But Putin has put Russia on a path of economic decline, just as the Soviet authorities had done to Russia before him. And just as the Soviet leadership lost the support of its population, it is likely, that so will Putin.
Right now, Vladimir Putin enjoys an 80 percent pproval rating in Russia. But on this 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, I’m willing to bet he’s not sleeping too soundly.