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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Status And Borders

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-five years ago today, the Soviet government downgraded the Finno-Karelian Union Republic into the Karelian Autonomous Republic within the RSFSR, a move that highlighted both the impermanence of borders in the Soviet area and the political nature of the status of particular nations and state formations.

On 11 July 1956, the Soviet government decided to eliminate the union republic status Moscow had accorded Karelia in the late 1930s when Joseph Stalin launched his unsuccessful military campaign to incorporate neighboring Finland into the USSR. And because of that, many in the 1950s viewed the reduction in Karelia's status as part of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's program of detente and de-Stalinization.

But in addition to this broad political meaning of Khrushchev's action, Karelia's passage from an autonomous republic to a union republic and then back to an autonomous one inevitably calls attention to the ways in which Moscow decided on both the status and borders of all territorial units within the borders of the Soviet Union, decisions that continue to resonate even now after the collapse of the USSR.

In the course of Soviet history, borders among the union and autonomous republics were changed more than 200 times, sometimes in minor ways and sometimes in radical ones. And the status of many peoples, including the Karelians, was upgraded, downgraded, or even suppressed by Moscow in pursuit of its domestic and foreign policy aims.

Such long-ago changes in the political status of these groups acquired new meaning when the Soviet Union collapsed because the international community chose to treat only the union republics as having the right to become independent countries and elected to view the borders Moscow had drawn for its own purposes as both inevitable and inviolable.

Because that approach reduced the likelihood of violence among these new countries, this approach has found many defenders. But it almost inevitably oversimplified the complex history out of which the 12 Soviet republics emerged as independent countries and the other communities remained subordinate to them.

Karelia was not the only union republic which lost that status and hence the possibility of claiming the right to become a country. It is now an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. Abkhazia too was a union republic, albeit one that was administratively subordinate to another union republic, Georgia, for almost a decade and is now part of that country. And because of that some in both of these republics and elsewhere have argued that they too should have the chance to become independent states.

Moreover, the Soviet leaders drew the borders of Karelia, Abkhazia and the other autonomous and union republics less to reflect the understanding of the population than to promote Moscow's goals. Karelia became a pawn in Stalin's effort at expansion. Meanwhile, the borders of other republics were drawn as in the southern Caucasus and Central Asia simultaneously to advertise Soviet solicitude to ethnic minorities and to heighten interethnic tensions.

The post-Soviet states must now deal with the realities of borders and status left by the Soviet government. Many of the countries currently have unresolved border disputes with their neighbors, disputes which in many cases are rooted in the Soviet past. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabkh is only the most visible, but the difficulties Uzbekistan has with its neighbors may prove to be even more explosive.

But it is the question of status that may ultimately create the largest number of problems not only for the countries of this region but for the world as a whole. Some of the communities that the Soviet government decided should have only autonomous status have more people and more developed infrastructure -- Tatarstan is the obvious example -- than some of those to which Moscow gave union republic status.

Some activists in these communities over the last decade have asked why the decisions of a defunct regime about their past status in a country that no longer exists should determine their future. The history of the Finno-Karelian Union Republic, which passed out of existence nearly a half century ago, may thus have an even greater impact in the future than that event of 1956 had in the past.