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The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance - Overview

The monograph by Mikhail Lipkin is dedicated to the one of the key organizations of Eastern bloc during the era of the Cold War – the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or COMECON) that existed in 1949–1991. Even though the author deals with only the first thirty years of its functioning, he makes the first attempt to compose a synthesis of the history of this multilateral organization based on a wide range of new archival evidence from four archives in Russia and the EU Historical Archives in Italy. The analysis of the COMECON papers stored in the Russian State Archive of Economics in Moscow lies in the heart of this book.

Сh. 1 is dedicated to the reasons for the COMECON creation and to the “kitchen” of policy-making during late stalinism. The author argues that in 1949–1953 CMEA had a potential to become a universal economic organization but acted mostly as a polar opposite to the COCOM in NATO. Despite the East European members’ interest in promoting joint planning, establishing currency regulation and other forms of mutual assistance, the Soviet vision predominated and narrowed its functions mostly to the issues of countersanctions, import substitutions and trade development. The documents show that the establishment of COMECON on January 8, 1949 was a response both to the rising “large” Cold War with the United States and the Marshall Plan and the “domestic” Cold War – with Yugoslavia.

After the death of Stalin the future of the organization became a battlefield between various strategies suggested by competing “comrades”: Lavrentiy Beria, Georgiy Malenkov and Viacheslav Molotov (ch. 2). The quest for a new vision of COMECON functions resulted in the Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms in late 1950s – early 1960s (ch. 3). Khrushchev clearly wanted both to copy certain features of Western European integration models and to transform COMECON into a global organization – the Supergosplan (supranational state planning structure), headquarters of the “world system of socialism” (including socialist countries of Asia, America and possibly Africa). Yet his vision had strong supporters within member states. Preparing the most radical set of reforms in COMECON around its extraordinary session in 1962, the Kremlin was following and developing many original ideas that came from Vladislav Gomulka, the leader of Poland. Khrushchev was in a hurry and pushed for the unrealistically fast COMECON integration. As a result, he encountered opposition internationally in Romania and Bulgaria and also within the Soviet bureaucracy at home. Krushchev’s reforms were only semi-implemented, and many of his ideas were developed later and, with different wording, in the Brezhnev times.

Ch. 4 discloses inner tuffles and Soviet tactics around the preparation of the Complex Program of Socialist Economic Integration in COMECON in 1971. The analysis of principal statements on the “socialist integration” from all the COMECON member countries in 1968–1969 shows that they were all connected to the contemporary domestic reforms in these socialist countries. Yet quite a new thing was that both the most progressive members (Poland, Hungary, GDR) as well as the most conservative ones (Rumania, Bulgaria) were unanimous in making COMECON open for new members from all continents and even all economic systems. The Soviet Union was in a position of both the mediator and the leader and that explains why it had to take the middle way and was inevitably compromising with a variety of suggestions from the members states. The ambitions of the member states were the reason that “socialist globalism” (and not the “Soviet globalism” alone) opened a new era of COMECON in 1970s.

Ch. 5 is a documental story full of ups and downs in a dialogue between Moscow and Brussels on mutual recognition of two economic integration blocs. It analyses attempts to reach an agreement on the foundations of relations between COMECON and the European Community in 1970s. It shows how deep and crucial this issue was for the challenge of Soviet leadership in the socialist world and how deep rooted the talks on mutual recognition were in a heap of security, ideology, legal and economic considerations with long-term consequences. The view “from within” shows that by 1979 both sides were very close to an agreement after a set of compromises from both sides. But the Soviet belief in the inevitability of good relations and in the power of the “world socialist system” prevented them from fixing the positions. They missed their chance both to reach the Agreement and to upgrade the international legal status of COMECON. The next decade didn’t forgive this mistake.

The author concludes that despite the illiberal nature of member states, the procedures in COMECON and the sincerity of secret discussions present this organisation not as a “failed” clone of the Western “Common Market” but as a forum of the “socialist hemisphere”, quite successful in 1960s – 1970s. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, it had a global, universal nature, and the interest of many non-European countries from various continents towards various forms of affiliation with it shows that it acted as an important alternative “counter-centre” in the bipolar world. More interesting, the communist nationalists saw no contradiction in deepening integration and believed that their sovereignty could be better secured by implementing more “control” over Moscow through the COMECON bodies. Discussions and Soviet maneuvering show how restricted the Soviet Union in reality was in all forms of its policy vis-à-vis its alleged “satellites”. Whatever the official economic statistics shows (it needs to be questioned due to huge re-export f lows within the COMECON members economies), the shared belief and the need in an alternative vision of globalization was the main argument for the COMECON existence during more than 40 years of the post-WWII world order. The activities of the COMECON member states and their interest in its existence challenge our vision of the “economic Cold War” and need further research with a comparative study of national and international archives.