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Former U.S.S.R.: Analysis From Washington -- Five Years of Independence

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Having successfully reached their fifth anniversary as independent states, the former Soviet republics have confounded many of the expectations that their own citizens and Western governments had at the time of their emergence on the world scene.

Among the numerous predictions from 1991 that have not proven to be correct are the following:

Many expected that these states would make a quick and easy transition from dictatorship to democracy and from a command economy to the market. While many have made significant progress, others have barely begun to move in these positive directions. And all have found their efforts at reform far more difficult than either they or the West had thought would be the case.

Others thought that these new countries themselves would prove fragile and break into additional pieces. Ukraine in particular was thought to be a candidate for dissolution, but it is more integrated today than at any time in the past. And Russia, despite the continuing Chechen challenge, also remains in one piece.

If some were convinced that the new countries would disappear by falling apart into still smaller states, still others believed that the new states would quickly reintegrate into larger, if still loose, unions. Such hopes or fears that were invested in the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example, have not materialized.

Many felt that these countries would quickly fall into war with one another. But except for the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh and for Russian involvement in Moldova's Transdniestr region -- two conflicts which began long before the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist -- the countries of this region have not fought one another on the battlefield.

Many expected that the collapse of the Soviet Union would not only loose nuclear weapons on the world but become a model for the destruction of other multi-ethnic states.

While the Russian Federation does not have a perfect record in controlling nuclear materials, its nuclear weapons have not yet appeared on the territory of other countries or in the hands of international terrorists.

Moreover, the expectation that the end of the Soviet Union would usher in a new age of nationalism and that this age of nationalism would tear many existing states apart has also failed to materialize. Indeed, this notion was based on a profound misunderstanding of why the U.S.S.R. came apart:

It was not the multi-national composition of the population but the imperial nature of the Soviet state and the way in which it manipulated nationality that destroyed the Soviet Union.

Over the last five years, these new countries have generally avoided the extremes -- bad and good --that were predicted for them. That they have avoided the former should be an occasion for celebration. That they have not yet achieved the latter should serve as a challenge to continue the hard tasks they face.

But on this anniversary, it is worth recalling one wise prediction made immediately after Ukraine and the other republics gained their freedom: The longer these countries remained independent, the longer they would remain independent.

That is because other countries -- and especially Russia -- would become accustomed to their new status and not challenge it.

Five years is too soon for anyone to proclaim victory on this front, but as these countries celebrate their anniversaries this month, they can look forward to the future with fewer fears, if less exalted hopes, than they had such a brief time ago.