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Ex-USSR: Analysis From Washington - Maps Physical And Psychological

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - No country chooses where it is located on the physical globe, but each attempts to define its place in the world and that of its neighbors even as other countries attempt to do the same.

Sometimes the mental map a country draws for itself fully corresponds to the mental maps other countries have of it. But often and especially during periods of rapid change, these two maps diverge widely. And this divergence in the maps of mind can have an enormous impact on real policy.

Never has that been more in evidence than in the ongoing debates in and about the countries of the former Soviet bloc concerning how they define their mental maps of the world.

Many examples of tension between these two maps in this part of the world exist, but three stand out.

First, there is the open question about whether the borders of the former Soviet Union remain or should remain relevant to anyone.

Many of the countries that emerged from the collapse of the USSR see themselves as part of broader political and cultural worlds, worlds that cut across the borders of the former Soviet state. Thus, many Ukrainians look to Europe and many Central Asians to the Middle East.

But many in Moscow continue to insist that these countries either because they were former Soviet republics or are now members of the Commonwealth of Independent States should continue to be considered as a single geographic and political entity.

Such a view is not limited to Moscow. Many Western writers who in other cases argue that there should be no new lines in Europe routinely suggest that the borders of the former USSR somehow have continuing relevance for foreign policy and other purposes.

Obviously a great deal hinges on how these debates work themselves out both within the individual countries involved and in larger powers further away.

In the first case, a decision by these countries to continue to look to Moscow will have a very different set of policy consequences than a decision to look beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union.

And in the second, a decision by outsiders to define these countries as "former Soviet republics" rather than as countries that define themselves in other ways will have consequences both bureaucratic -- where they are put in foreign ministries -- and political -- how they are treated concerning NATO or the European Union.

Second, and related to the first, there is the question of where Europe ends. That question, and the related ones of what is meant by "Western" Europe, "Eastern" Europe, and "Central" Europe, also color policy outcomes.

Those in Russia and the West who believe that Russia is a European country tend to argue for Moscow's inclusion in Western institutions; those who see it as Eurasian have a different agenda.

Similarly, those in Prague and Budapest who see themselves as Central Europeans have an entirely different set of goals with respect to East and West than do those in those capitals and more generally who define the Czech Republic and Hungary as Eastern Europeans. And third, there is the lively issue of whether groupings that reflect a specific historical experience should define the future status of all of their members.

Among the examples of this problem are the Central Asians and the Balts. The five countries of Central Asia are extraordinarily diverse, but their shared features, including their attachment to Islam, have led many inside them and even more outside to define them as a single whole.

Those both inside the region and out who argue for treating it as a single whole have very different goals than those who argue for considering each country in terms of itself. The former, for example, may seek to promote unity among these states and ties to specific cultural regions further afield.

The latter, on the other hand, clearly seek to promote their national and often economic interests regardless of these cultural ties, and thus they promote more divisions among these states.

The case of the three Baltic states is particularly sensitive now. Many in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania continue to define themselves as "Balts," even though these three countries are very different on virtually all measures, including security questions.

They generally continue to define themselves as a group both because of their common experiences under Soviet occupation and because virtually all major Western countries insist on treating them that way.

But in recent months, tensions among the three have increased, largely because each has come to believe that by being forced to link its future fate to the other two, it may lose out on something it would otherwise win.

And those tensions may ultimately explode this mental map for both them and outside powers.

Obviously, the resources available to any of the countries in the post-Soviet part of the globe to define themselves anew are limited by virtue of tradition and because of the inertia in the views of powerful outsider countries.

But despite that, the mental maps of virtually all the post-Soviet states are changing, and these changes will play an increasingly important and autonomous role in political life in that part of the world and more broadly as well.