Accessibility links

The East: Analysis From Washington -- Forget The Former Soviet Union

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Six years after a failed coup in Moscow sent the USSR toward its demise, many people around the world continue to search for a single term to describe the group of countries that emerged from the rubble.

None of the terms proposed up to now has proved entirely successful. And with each passing year, the search for such a term seems increasingly unnecessary if not in fact counterproductive.

Among the terms most frequently suggested are the former Soviet Union, the new independent states, and Eurasia. But each of them just like all the others both fails to capture some important features of the new landscape and carries some significant political baggage.

The term "former Soviet Union" is perhaps the most obviously problematic. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991; continuing to refer to it both diminishes the status of the successor states and encourages those in Russia and elsewhere who would like to restore it.

Equally important, it dramatically overstates the similarities among countries whose only real trait in common was Russian and Soviet occupation. While that had a major impact on each, it did not wipe out the differences increasingly on view.

The term "new independent states" superficially appears to be more neutral; but if anything, it is even more highly charged politically than the other two.

Prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, no government in the world referred to independent countries arising from the ruins of empires as "new independent states." Instead, these countries were quickly included as countries much like all others.

Consequently the use of this term so long after the end of the USSR implies that the relationship between these countries and Moscow is somehow different. And that has led many people in the region to wonder aloud whether their states are less equal than others.

With each passing year, both the citizens of these countries and others as well are beginning to ask just how long these countries will have to be "independent" before they cease to be "new."

The term "Eurasia" also has some negative connotations, although they are perhaps less obvious. On the one hand, it indiscriminately lumps together countries that are definitely part of the European cultural world with some that most definitely are not.

And on the other, this term has a history that is anything but encouraging. One group of Russian nationalists popularized this term to suggest that Russia represented an amalgam of European and Asiatic civilizations and that it had a civilizing mission across this region.

But if none of the terms advanced thus far is adequate, the continued search for one highlights three more fundamental problems.

First, it reflects the unwillingness on the part of many to accept what happened in 1991 as a fundamental and irreversible watershed in world history.

When other empires dissolved in this century, few world leaders ever felt compelled to reiterate support for the independence and territorial integrity of their successors five years after the fact. No one was saying this about the successors to the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman or Russian empires in 1924.

But in the post-Soviet case, many leaders have done just that and thus have sent a message to these countries very different than these leaders say they intend.

Second, it reflects the inability on the part of many to recognize how diverse the countries of this region are and how many now have far greater ties with countries beyond the borders of the old Soviet Union than with countries within those borders.

Other than Russian and Soviet occupation, Armenia and Kazakhstan, for example, have little in common on almost any measure. And despite the impact of this past, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are both looking beyond the Soviet borders rather than to the former imperial center.

And third, this search for a single term reflects an unwillingness on the part of some in the West to challenge the desire of some in Moscow to remain the dominant power in this region regardless of the wishes of people in these countries.

Through instruments such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and via statements about the relevance of the borders of the former Soviet Union, the Russian government has advanced a claim to a sphere of influence across the region.

Such assertions make these Western terminological discussions all the more important. To the extent that the West uses terms that imply the territory once occupied by the Soviet Union is a single region, that will have one set of consequences, encouraging some in Moscow that the West has recognized Moscow's claims.

To the extent that the West uses terms that treat these countries as separate and unique states, that will have quite another set of results, encouraging each of these states to develop along its own particular lines.