New Perspectives on the History of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance
Comecon revisited. Integration in the Eastern Bloc and Entanglements with the Global Economy.
Vol 27 No 5-6 (2017)
New Perspectives on the History of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance
The article examines Soviet eforts between 9 and 97 to develop reform concepts for the Comecon. During the Stalinist era, the Soviet Union began exercising strong control in East Central and Southeast Europe. This control also signiicantly impacted the nature of cooperation. But cooperation at this time was not a priority; it only became a priority after Stalin’s death, at which time the Soviet Union began developing its own concept of economic cooperation for the Eastern Bloc. Khrushchev wanted cooperation to have a scientiic foundation. Based on “objective laws” of economic development, each country should be encouraged to specialize in diferent economic sectors, as part of an overarching plan for the economic development of the CMEA area. Like his Sovnarkhoz reforms, Khrushchev based this plan on the ideal Communist man, who in realty did not exist. The plan proved unsuccessful at the international and regional level for two reasons. First, the Soviet Union failed to establish a centralized rational planning process for the entire Eastern Bloc. Second, the Soviet Union could not prevent the resurgence of policies based on national interests. Following Khrushchev’s failed efort at reforming Comecon, Brezhnev adopted a more conservative approach, aimed primarily at increasing the efectiveness of Soviet trade relations in the CMEA. These approaches were also inluenced by reform eforts at the national level against the backdrop of the Liberman Debate.
The article addresses the role of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, 949– 99) in the creation and development of the transnational electric power grid “Mir” (Russian: Peace). This power grid was oicially established in 99 and connected the national electric networks of the socialist states of Eastern Europe by means of cross-border power lines. This transnational infrastructure was developed over the next decades and included nuclear, hydro, and thermal power plants. The planning and construction of cross-border energy infrastructures was one of the primary tasks of the CMEA. CMEA institutions, such as the Permanent Commission for Electric Energy, the Central Dispatch Organization, and the “Interatomenergo” were supposed to facilitate cooperation between participating CMEA countries. Following the political rapprochement between East and West Europe in the 970s, the idea of surmounting the iron curtain to create a European-wide system of electrical supply became the focus. Compared with other transnational systems of energy transmission for crude oil and natural gas, the Mir network had a relatively high degree of institutionalization. This coordination was essential for the smooth operation of the overall system. The disintegration of the Comecon in 99 impeded this cooperation and led to the rapid dissolution of the Mir power grid (compared to other transnational networks). This article analyses how this network worked and the actors involved. In doing so, it addresses a gap in research on the development of transnational electrical networks in the socialist Eastern Bloc.
The meeting of national and international interests within the framework of an international organization, such as the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), inevitably leads to conlict. Through a micro-analysis of speciic disputes within the CMEA, this article endeavours to determine the creative power of these conlicts. Disputes between CMEA oicials and representatives from those oicials’ country of origin are examined to understand the logic of the conlicts and their resolution. In the conlicts, the question of the rationality principle is raised among actors with reference to their actions. This article develops a typology of conlicts. First, at international meetings, CMEA oicials might reproach their national counterparts for having insuicient international competence, while concomitantly stressing their transnational expertise. Second, some CMEA staf avoided conlict, by not attending negotiations where oicials from their country of origin might try to use them to advance nationalist goals at the international level. Third, in a few cases, conlicts of interest did lead to open conlict, an outcome CMEA oicials tried to avoid. Exploring these three modalities of conlict allows us to characterize the transnational self-awareness of CMEA workers as arising from a dual loyalty. Factoring in CMEA oicials’ use of the phrase “the common interest of the member states” in their public statements allows the historian to understand their double embedding in national and international networks of power from which they tried to enforce a transnational and CMEA-speciic point of view.
This article analyses one aspect of CMEA history, which has been neglected in prior literature: its policy-making in the ield of external trade politics. The CMEA attempted – unsuccessfully – to coordinate a common policy vis-à-vis the outside world, particularly the European Community, at the turn of the 970s. The impetus for this came from the progress achieved by the EC, which was planning to implement a Common Commercial Policy starting from 970. The CMEA did not endeavour to copy EC development, but to assist its members’ access to the Common Market that would be hindered once the EC policy was implemented. Based on the indings of this study, the CMEA should be seen as an instrument that all members used to advance their particular aims and interests. The CMEA debate on its policy towards the EC shows the limits of Soviet power within the organisation and towards its smaller allies: due to the organization’s decision-making principles, and more importantly, because the member states could resist it, the USSR was not able to override the intergovernmental CMEA. Nonetheless, due to the unanimity rule, the CMEA could not act without Soviet consent. Importantly, Soviet economic power was valuable for the small allies in possible negotiations with the EC. Therefore, to secure Soviet participation, the East Europeans accepted the Soviet leading role in the EC policymaking.
The article examines grain imports in CMEA countries in the 970s and 980s and how these imports afected these countries’ growing global entanglements. In CMEA states, grain was largely used as animal feed. High and increasing levels of meat consumption were considered a sign of prosperity and a necessity for political stability. From roughly 97, socialist countries began importing massive amounts of grain from capitalist countries, initially mainly the United States. These imports contributed substantially to some socialist countries’ growing foreign debt. Eforts to increase domestic grain production were often pursued half-heartedly and only had moderate success. Inside the CMEA, a de-facto policy of self-suiciency, augmented by limited mostly bilateral cooperation, existed for the meat-grain sector. After 990, meat consumption in the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe fell sharply, and since that time it has only recovered slowly or not at all. Global integration – also pursued by Communist governments – thus led to only a limited increase in consumption. This essay describes the motivation of important stakeholders and the connection between global and regional integration.
This article relects on how the economic and trade relations of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia with Russia have developed in the twenty years since the abolition of the CMEA. The article’s main indings are as follows. First, there have been two distinct phases in postCMEA trade patterns. After a long period of stagnation prior to EU accession, Russia has since become a signiicant export market for all three states. For the three, the build-up of export capacity during EU pre-accession was arguably more important than EU entry per se. Second, energy dependency, a key CMEA-era interconnection, has remained a signiicant feature of economic relations between Russia and the three throughout the post-CMEA era. Third, the growing importance of bilateral intergovernmental instruments charged with promoting trade and economic cooperation between Russia and the three has been a notable feature of the post-004 period. Fourth, the main political parties in each of the three tended to take diferent positions on economic relations with Russia. Yet changes of government seem to have been rather marginal in terms of both the conduct of economic relations with Russia and levels of trade and economic cooperation, especially in the post-004 period.
The research presented in this thematic issue challenges a thesis that to date has dominated literature on former CMEA countries, namely that individually or as a Bloc, they sought self-suficiency. Quantitatively, these countries involvement in world markets has of course never been extensive. In fact, during the post-socialist transition to an open-market economy, the East Central European countries appeared more de-globalized than during the CMEA period. Although these countries became an important site of direct foreign investment in the 1990s (and even more so after EU accession in 2004), they primarily functioned as an “extended workbench” of the West. The qualitatively low involvement of the national economies of this region in the world economy is thus an “old phenomena,” which Ivan T. Berend rightly described as a “detour from the periphery to the periphery.” However, when assessing the character of economic interdependencies, it is also helpful to analyse the transnational activities of speciic actors and the development of corresponding networks. The beneit of examining the history of socialist integration from the perspective of everyday life or “from below” is demonstrated by many of the contributions to this volume. Even during the Cold War when European-wide communication seemingly had broken down, economic integration was contemplated and discussed. These discussions should be seen in relation to eforts at integration in the 90s and those of the Visegrad countries in the 1990s.
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