A Europe “Whole and Free” Is Possible When Russia Returns to Democracy
01 LIP 2020

As U.S. President George H.W. Bush took the podium at Mainz’s Rheingoldhalle on 31 May 1989 to deliver a speech that would define the worldview for a generation of post-Cold War leaders, he was about to make a leap that is easy to underestimate with historical hindsight.

There had already been promising signs, to be sure. Václav Havel, the Czechoslovak playwright and symbol of his country’s liberation movement, had just been released from prison. The Soviet Union had just held its first-ever competitive election, which, although far from truly democratic, opened the legislature to voices that could previously be heard only in dissidents’ kitchens or in samizdat. Poland’s Solidarity union had won official status and was preparing for elections after its Round Table Talks with the communist government.

The prospects for “the seeds of democracy” so hopefully referenced by Bush in Mainz, however, were far from assured. Berlin still stood divided; Erich Honecker’s iron grip over East Germany seemed firm, as did Nicolae Ceaușescu’s over Romania; Soviet troops had just brutally put down an anti-communist demonstration in Tbilisi; and, many in the USSR’s leadership were calling for an end to Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiments with glasnost. Yet, Bush spoke on: “Let Europe be whole and free … the world has waited long enough.”[1]

Few leaders have had the fortune of America’s 41st president to see their goals realised to such a degree; few historical eras can compare with this period in Eastern Europe and in the pace of the transformation. Walls and dictators were crumbling at breathtaking speed. Within months, Berlin was reunited, Solidarity triumphed in Poland’s multiparty elections, and Havel was president of Czechoslovakia. “When they arrested me … I was living in a country ruled by the most conservative communist government,” he said in his address to the U.S. Congress in February 1990. “Today … Czechoslovakia is returning to Europe.”[2]

The “return to Europe” would become a leitmotif for the post-communist transformation in the former Warsaw Pact countries. Much more than a shift to media pluralism, free elections, and a market economy, more even than the removal of foreign domination—fundamental as all of this was—the reforms of the 1990s represented for Eastern Europe a long- sought affirmation of its status as “fully” European. Domestic political and economic reforms were linked to—and incentivised by—the prospect of integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. It is doubtful that in their most audacious hopes of May 1989, American and Western European policymakers could imagine that within two decades most Eastern Bloc countries would become full members of the European Union and NATO or that the region once referred to as the “Second World” would become a model for democratic development. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989. “That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[3]

Yet, for all the progress made since 1989, the 30th anniversary of the Mainz speech was not a happy one, and its main premise—a Europe “whole and free” and “at peace with itself”—has not been fulfilled, nor will it be while Europe’s largest country is ruled by an illiberal regime that has led an authoritarian restoration at home and engaged in aggressive revisionism abroad.

Russia’s Road to Democracy—and Back

This course of events was not predetermined. Indeed, the wave of democracy that swept through Eastern Europe after  1989  culminated with Russia’s own democratic revolution in August 1991—the three days that ended the Soviet system. It began as a coup d’état led by hardliners in President Gorbachev’s inner circle: the leaders of the Soviet government, the Communist Party, and the KGB. The plotters controlled everything—the administrative machine, state media, security services, and the tanks, which they sent into Moscow. But against all that might was something Soviet apparatchiks did not count on: the determination of a people who had already tasted freedom not to return to the old ways.

The coup was met by hundreds of thousands of Muscovites, who took to the streets and stood in front of the tanks—and the tanks stopped. As Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first freely elected president who led the demonstrations, made his victory appeal from the balcony of the White House, Muscovites went to Lubyanka Square, to the headquarters of the Soviet KGB, to tear down the monument of its founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky. The statue of the head of the Soviet secret police hanging in a noose as a crane lifted it from its pedestal remains among the most enduring images of Russia’s democratic revolution. That same evening, a plaque honouring another secret police chief, Yuri Andropov, was removed from the facade of the building. In Russia, symbols matter. The Communist Party was soon outlawed, its archives partially opened, its governing structures found by Russia’s highest court to have been “the initiators of repression … directed at millions.”[4] “The idol of communism … which instilled fear in humanity, has collapsed,” Yeltsin told a joint session of the U.S. Congress in June 1992. “It has collapsed never to rise again.”[5]

Just as with its Western neighbours, Russia’s move toward democracy was closely tied to its “return to Europe.” On 20 December 1991, before the dissolution of the USSR was even formally completed, President Yeltsin sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner that was dramatically read aloud by Russian Ambassador Nikolai Afanasyevsky at a North Atlantic Council meeting in Brussels. Calling for “strengthening stability and cooperation on the European continent,” Yeltsin informed Wörner that he was “raising a question of Russia’s membership in NATO … as a long-term political aim.”[6]

On 7 May 1992, Russia made a formal application to join the Council of Europe, the oldest pan-European institution whose Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms had served as the gold standard on the continent for half a century. After an arduous accession process, on 25 January 1996, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted 164 to 35 to approve Russia’s application and invite it to become a full member. “Our rendezvous with history,” was the comment from Rudolf Bindig, a German parliamentarian and the rapporteur on Russia’s accession.[7] On 28 February, the Russian flag was raised alongside others at the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg. “With the victory of democracy in Russia and with our accession to the Council of Europe, the territory of freedom has notably expanded; it now spans twelve time-zones,” President Yeltsin told fellow leaders at the second Council of Europe summit. “Today we are coming close to creating a new and big Europe without dividing lines, a Europe where no country will dictate its will to others … It is in the interest of all Europeans to travel this road.”[8]

That speech was made in 1997, the year that seemed to signal a long- awaited breakthrough on Russia’s road to democracy. At home, it was the first year of economic growth since the end of the Soviet Union, the year the Russian government concluded a peace agreement with Chechnya, ending a brutal internal conflict, the year Boris Nemtsov, a young reformist regional governor, moved to Moscow as first deputy prime minister and quickly soared in the polls, becoming Russia’s most popular politician and the presumed heir to the presidency. Abroad, it was the year Russia was invited to join the Group of Eight industrialised democracies, enacted its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union that emphasized “respect for democratic principles and human rights,” and signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security with NATO, reaffirming a “shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe, whole and free.”[9]

Once again, however, the promise went unfulfilled. In Russia, the ensuing years brought change that was as rapid as the one a decade earlier, but in the opposite direction, what Harvard University’s Samuel Huntington termed the “reverse wave” of democracy.[10] The financial crash of 1998, the “oligarch wars,” and a sustained media campaign against Nemtsov, then the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, all contributed to a fundamental shift in Russian politics. Even more important was the long-term impact of an unfinished revolution. As it turned out, the job had only been half done in 1991. While the Soviet regime was removed from power, a Nuremberg- style trial or truth commissions to account for its crimes were never held, lustration against its operatives and its security services was never enacted, and even its archives, after a brief opening, were back under lock and key. “It’s like dealing with a wounded beast,” Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Soviet-era dissident, warned the Russian government at the time. “If you don’t finish it off, it will attack you.”[11]

Just eight years after Russia’s democratic revolution—and two years after his “big Europe” speech in Strasbourg—Yeltsin handed the keys to the Kremlin to an officer of the very same organisation he had so spectacularly defeated in August 1991. Ominously, Vladimir Putin began his rule by restoring one of the Soviet symbols taken down during those days: the memorial plaque to Andropov on Lubyanka Square. In Russia, symbols matter.

Symbols were followed by substance as Putin moved at a speedy pace to dismantle Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Within three years, all private television networks were cut off or taken over; Russia’s richest man, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was in prison for having the tenacity to support opposition parties; and, Russian elections, for the first time since Soviet rule, were being assessed by international observers as “not fair.” With time, the screws became tighter, with peaceful opposition rallies routinely dispersed by riot police, with leading human-rights groups officially stigmatised as “foreign agents,” and with the number of political prisoners rivalling that in the Brezhnev era. In February 2015, in what became the most high-profile political assassination in modern Russia, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin walls. The organisers of his murder remain unidentified and unindicted.

A Triumph of Realpolitik: Putin’s Western Enablers

With a few notable exceptions, such as Republican Senator John McCain or Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos in the United States, the West chose to turn a blind eye to Putin’s domestic crackdown, continuing “business as usual.” While he targeted opponents and muzzled media at home, the Kremlin leader was welcomed in Western capitals, with presidents and prime ministers of democratic countries not only accepting but praising him. “A new style of leader, a reformer … who is going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful,” was the verdict on Putin from President George W. Bush, who had “looked the man in the eye … [and] was able to get a sense of his soul.”[12] Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, the author of the “reset” with the Kremlin, praised Putin for his “extraordinary work … on behalf of the Russian people” and congratulated him on winning a sham election that observers ruled neither free nor fair nor democratic.[13] In what was perhaps the most grotesque illustration of realpolitik, in June 2003, days after pulling the plug on Russia’s last independent nationwide television network, Putin was treated to a state visit to Britain with a lavish reception at the London Guildhall, not far from the spot where, three years later, agents likely acting on his orders would poison Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium.

The immorality of this approach aside, Putin’s Western interlocutors seemed to forget—or ignore—a fundamental maxim of Russian history: that domestic repression and external aggression are closely connected. Why  would a government that disregards its own laws and the rights  of its own citizens respect international norms or the interests of other countries? Remarkably, a warning sign for those who could forget was sounded as early as December 1992. At a CSCE meeting in Stockholm, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, the face of President Yeltsin’s pro- European foreign policy, took to the floor to announce a major shift in his country’s positions. Russia, he said, will confront “NATO and EU plans to strengthen their military presence in … the former Soviet Union” and any “interference in internal affairs,” and regards the former Soviet republics as “a post-imperial space where Russia has to defend its interests by all available means” and where “CSCE norms cannot be fully implemented.”[14] As diplomats rushed for the phones, Kozyrev approached the podium once again to explain that his speech had been a stunt intended to show what would happen to Russia’s international posture should antidemocratic forces seize power at home.

By comparison to the present day, Kozyrev’s speech was an exercise in moderation. Under Putin, Russia’s national security strategy designated NATO actions as “a threat,” one of his state-of-the-nation addresses featured a computer animation of a ballistic missile attack on Florida, Russian military exercises include simulated nuclear strikes on NATO countries and their allies, and the main state television anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, boasted on the air of “turn[ing] the U.S. into radioactive ash.”[15] The aggressive posturing has gone beyond words, with Putin violating key arms-control agreements, using Russian forces for military attacks in Georgia and Ukraine, sending soldiers and mercenaries to prop up dictators from Syria to the Central African Republic, and, with Crimea, carrying out the first state-to-state territorial annexation in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Lessons Learned? Past Mistakes as a Warning for Future Decision-Makers

The lessons of history are not just for scholars; they are, above all, for political practitioners who work to avoid past mistakes. For Russia, the main lesson from the failed transition of the 1990s is that it is not enough to shed the outward trappings of a dictatorship; the core foundations must be uncovered and removed. This lesson will hopefully be heeded by those who shepherd Russia’s next turn to democracy, whenever it comes. For the West, the main lesson should be a reminder that, in the end, the oft-touted conflict between interests and values in relation to Russia is false. Deals with an authoritarian regime are transient at best and counterproductive in the long run. Lasting peace and stability in Europe will only come with a democratic government in Russia that respects the rule of law at home and behaves as a responsible citizen globally.

It is, of course, for Russians to work for this outcome. The mass protests against corruption and authoritarianism that swept through the country in 2017 and 2018, with thousands of (mostly very young) people on the streets from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk, give hope that such a prospect is real. But Western democracies have an important role to play too, both in adopting the right attitude to the current regime and in preparing to deal with a different Russia in the future. At present, it is important to make clear that values matter, and that adherence to the rule of law is not just a declaration, but a practical guide for policy. For years, the world’s democracies have, in effect, supported the Putin regime by treating it as a respectable international interlocutor and, more importantly, by allowing its cronies and oligarchs to use Western countries as havens for their looted wealth. The people who abuse the basic norms of the rule of law in Russia have been enjoying the privileges and protections afforded by these norms in the West, where they have been storing their money, parking their families, and buying up real estate. For too long, the West has enabled such behaviour. More recently, the passage of “Magnitsky” laws in Europe and North America, with targeted visa and financial sanctions on those complicit in corruption and human-rights abuses, has signalled that such people will no longer be welcome on Western soil or in Western banks. This was a groundsbreaking step toward accountability, but only the first one; more countries need to pass such laws, and those that already have them must do a better job of implementing them. Western leaders should also be careful not to equate—in rhetoric or in action—Putin’s regime with Russia as a whole, and not to fall into the false (and insulting) narrative that Russians are somehow “incapable” of democracy.

Most importantly, while there is still time, Western countries should prepare a framework for integrating a future democratic Russia into that big Europe” that never came in the 1990s. And here they should learn from their own past failure. For while the main reasons for Russia’s “reverse wave” undoubtedly lay at home, Western inability—or unwillingness—to offer Russia the prospect of a full “return to Europe” of the kind it offered its neighbours played a significant role in disincentivising democratic reforms in the 1990s. According to contemporary accounts, after Yeltsin’s proposal of joining NATO in 1991, the alliance’s leaders “seemed too taken aback by the Russian letter to give any coherent response.”[16] Although the Treaty of Maastricht clearly established that “any European state may apply to become a member of the [European] Union,” such a prospect was never offered to Yeltsin’s Russia, even as a distant possibility.[17] While accession to the Council of Europe gave Russia important symbolic status and the legal protections of the Convention on Human Rights, Russian citizens were never offered the economic benefits of “track one” European integration, such as free trade or visa-free travel, creating the perception, later skilfully used by Putin’s propaganda, that Russians were treated as second-class Europeans. While others were welcomed, Russia was kept at the doorstep. It is imperative not to repeat this mistake. A Europe “whole and free,” if that is still the goal, is only possible with a democratic Russia as an integral part of it.

“We realize our great responsibility for the success of our changes, not only toward the people of Russia but also toward … the entire world,” Yeltsin said in his speech to Congress in June 1992. “We have no right to fail in this most difficult endeavour, for there will be no second try as in sports.”[18] History has not been kind to Russia, but it has given it a number of “second tries,” and opportunities for democratic change have come and gone. Someday, there will be another and, for the sake of everyone, it must succeed.


[1] “A Whole Europe, A Free Europe”, delivered on 31 May 1989, Mainz, Federal Republic of Germany, reproduced in the annex to this volume , pp. 353–361.

[2] Address by Václav Havel, president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, to the joint session of the U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., 21 February 1990, www.c-span.org/video/?10917-1/czechoslovakian-president-address.

[3] F. Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, no. 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3–18, www.jstor.org/stable/24027184?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

[4] Ordinance no. 9-P of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, art. 3, 30 November 1992, www.panorama.ru/ks/d9209.shtml.

[5] Address by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Washington D.C., 17 June 1992, www.c-span.org/video/?c4504267/boris-yeltsin-congress-june-17-1992.

[6] T. Friedman, “Soviet disarray; Yeltsin Says Russia Seeks to Join NATO,” The New York Times, 21 December 1991, www.nytimes.com/1991/12/21/world/sovietdisarray-yeltsin-says-russia-seeks-to-join-nato.html.

[7] J. Blocker, “Vote on Russia Marks Council’s Most Historic Day,” Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, 26 January 1996, www.rferl.org/a/1079929.html

[8] Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, F. 23, no. 040_001, 10-11 October 1997, https://yeltsin.ru/archive/video/84943/.

[9] Agreement on partnership and cooperation establishing a partnership between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and the Russian Federation, of the other part, art. 2, 24 June 1994, https://eur-lex.europa. eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:21997A1128(01); Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, Preamble, 27 May 1997, www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_25468.htm.

[10] Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 2, no. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 12–34, www.ned.org/docs/Samuel-P-Huntington-Democracy-Third-Wave.pdf.

[11] V. Kara-Murza, They Chose Freedom (Moscow 2005), DVD video, https://imrussia. org/en/(http:/imrussia.org/en/project/534-they-chose-freedom-the-story-ofsoviet-dissidents).

[12] Remarks by President George W. Bush and President Putin to Russian Exchange Students and Students of Crawford High School, Crawford High School, Crawford, Texas, 15 November 2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse. archives.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011115-4.html; Press Conference by President George W. Bush and Russian Federation President Putin, Brdo Castle, Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, 16 June 2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/06/20010618.html.

[13] Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Putin of Russia before Meeting, Novo Ogaryovo, Moscow, Russia, 7 July 2009, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/realitycheck/the-press-office/remarks-president-obama-and-prime-minister-putin-russia-meeting; Readout of the President’s Call with President-Elect Putin, 9 March 2012, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/03/09/readoutpresident-s-call-president-elect-putin.

[14] V. Abarinov, “‘Ultimatum’ Andreia Kozyreva” [Andrei Kozyrev’s ‘Ultimatum’], Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 15 December 1992, https://yeltsin.ru/uploads/upload/newspaper/1992/nzv12_15_92/index.html.

[15] “Vesti nedeli” [News of the Week], Rossiya-1, 16 March 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TA9mVLomYo8.

[16] T. Friedman, op. cit.

[17] 17. Treaty on European Union, art. O, 7 February 1992, https://europa.eu/europeanunion/sites/europaeu/files/docs/body/treaty_on_european_union_en.pdf.

[18] 18. Address by Boris Yeltsin, op. cit.