Accessibility links

20 Years After The Big Breakup, Does The 'Former Soviet Union' Still Exist?

PHOTO GALLERY: Images from the failed Soviet coup of August 19-21, 1991.

By Brian Whitmore, Robert Coalson

It has been 20 years since the failed coup that precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union, 20 years since 15 new independent countries appeared on the global stage

But for citizens of these adolescent states, the meaning of the dramatic events of August 19-21, 1991, depends upon where one sits.

For those in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, those three days that shook the world two decades ago marked the beginning of a process that moved the Baltic states unambiguously toward democracy, free markets, and the European mainstream.

But for the Uzbeks, the Turkmen, and the Belarusians, the failed coup that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union meant something entirely different -- a precipitous slide into autocratic rule that earned these countries the dubious honor of being among what Freedom House calls "the world's most repressive societies."

And for the rest, it meant something in between.

Some, like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia have moved in fits and starts toward some form of democratic or quasi-democratic rule. Others, most notably Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan have settled into being soft autocracies or "managed democracies." Energy-rich Azerbaijan, meanwhile, became an authoritarian petro-state.

This vast range of regime types raises a question: Is it still even possible to speak of a region called "the former Soviet Union"?

The establishment -- or re-emergence -- of strong national identities, the relative weakening of Russian influence, the cultural, economic, and political pull of other powers like the European Union, Turkey, and China, and the rise of a post-Soviet generation to adulthood have all served to weaken the ties that once bound these countries tightly together.

"Every year that passes it gets harder to talk about the post-Soviet space and we need to start reformulating the idea," says Thomas De Waal, a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and the author of numerous books on the Caucasus. "If these countries were children, then they would be 20 years old now. This is old enough to be making their own decisions, getting a job, buying a car, learning to drive certainly."

'We Were Very Naive'

For the less democratic parts of the ex-U.S.S.R., today's realities are a far cry from the euphoria of the 1991 events themselves. Boris Nemtsov participated in the opposition to the coup attempt in Moscow in 1991 and later became deputy Russian prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin in the late 1990s.

"We were very romantic. We believed that the way to freedom and a successful life would be much shorter than we recognized later," Nemtsov says, adding that he believed ending Communism would be enough to assure that democracy would take root.

"We were very naive -- not only me, but Yeltsin and all of our team. ... Unfortunately, reality looks much more serious and much more complicated than we believed at that time."

Boris Nemtsov: "Unfortunately, reality looks much more complicated than we believed at that time."

The countries that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union quickly realized the real scope of the challenges confronting them.

"They were all starting from zero," de Waal says, "and it was a bit of a lottery what they started with -- what they inherited from the Soviet command economy; what kind of cadres they had; whether or not they had -- as in all three Caucasus countries -- unresolved territorial disputes that would hamper them from the beginning; and then what kind of leaders they had, as you had quite a range there. So they were starting from zero with this state that disappeared from under their feet."


One of the crucial tasks at hand was the formation of national identities in the new states, many of which had never been independent in the modern era.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program, says the most significant change was "the creation and re-establishment and re-creation of new, independent identities" in these states, "which includes seeking to differentiate themselves from Russia even when people had been very heavily Russified and economies had been heavily Sovietized."

This was easier for some than others. The Baltic states, for example, were able to draw on their experience as independent countries between the two world wars. Others, like Armenia and Ukraine, had strong diasporas that helped keep their national traditions vibrant. But many had to start practically from scratch.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000, says the emergence of a national identity spanning all of Ukraine is among the country's key achievements of the last two decades.

"Remember, if you go back 15, 16 years ago, people were asking if Ukraine would exist as an independent state," Pifer says.

"I do believe in Ukraine that there is a sense of national identity, and that's in eastern Ukraine as well as western Ukraine. I mean, in eastern Ukraine it may not be quite as thick as it is in the west, but I think most Ukrainians now see Ukraine as an independent state and whatever issues they are going to face, they want to resolve those issues as a Ukrainian state."

John Tefft, the current U.S. ambassador to Kyiv and a former ambassador to Georgia, stresses the importance of the emergence of a post-Soviet generation -- people who have always known their countries as independent states.

"You know, [today] it's a whole different ball game than their fathers and grandfathers had." Tefft says. "So Ukraine, like so many of the other countries in this region, is going through this transition period, putting off the legacies of the Soviet Union and trying to become a modern European nation."

The transition process, however, has been uneven and in many cases it has been marked by a movement away from democracy rather than toward it.

"Azerbaijan is definitely less democratic than 20 years ago. Belarus definitely less," de Waal says. "In terms of state strength and everyday deliverables, maybe they are stronger, but on the democracy index they have moved back. Turkmenistan is definitely an example where they had more freedom in 1985 than they do now."

The Loss Of Empire

Russia, of course, is a special case.

For many in Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a significant loss of status and prestige.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stated bluntly that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. As a result, it has been harder for many Russians to imagine a future that is more attractive than the country's past, and leaders like Putin have exploited such nostalgia to restore authoritarianism at home and to exert influence in what Moscow sees as its "sphere of privileged interests."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stated bluntly that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Moscow has attempted to buttress its influence through its energy wealth as well as via multilateral organizations like the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

"I don't think Russia is trying to re-create the Soviet Union," Pifer says. "But I think Russia -- the Russian concept of the 'sphere of privileged interests' is they would like a situation where countries such as Ukraine would defer to Moscow on issues that the Russians determine to be critical for Moscow."

In the case of Ukraine, for instance, NATO membership is out of the question from Moscow's point of view. But lately it seems that the Kremlin balks even at the distant prospect of Ukrainian membership in the European Union. Moscow has also been pressuring Kyiv to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

But de Waal notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Moscow to get its way as these countries become increasingly self-assured in their statehood and sovereignty.

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

The emergence of a generation of leaders in the post-Soviet states that has confidence in democracy and is willing to source its power from their electorates rather than from chummy relations with Moscow could be the next step in the dissolution of the concept of a "former Soviet Union."

Carnegie's Rojansky sees the wave of colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan as an important development in this direction, a sign of the generational weakening of the sociopolitical legacies of the Soviet experience.

"When you think about how much apparent -- stability is not even the word -- unchangeability or just stagnation there was from 1991 all the way until the early part and the middle part of the last decade, I think at that point colored revolutions came as a pretty significant surprise, certainly a very significant new development," Rojansky says.

So 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region has moved from the era of the "former Soviet Union" to the era of post-former Soviet Union. Increasingly, they are 15 different states with their own webs of international relations and their own patterns of domestic sociopolitical development.

But two decades on, the process of change in these societies is far from complete.

"These are obviously still extremely vulnerable, extremely unstable," Rojansky says. "But at the same time, with great potential."

RFE/RL correspondents Irena Chalupa and Richard Solash contributed to this report from Washington

Show comments