Washington, 11 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind says that Western leaders should stop referring to the group of countries that emerged from the collapse of the USSR as the "Former Soviet Union."
Speaking in Washington on Monday to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rifkind argued that such references are "unwise" because they carry with them "the unconscious legitimation" of the possible return of Russian rule there in the future.
Instead, he continued, Western governments should consider these countries in terms of strictly geographic categories. Some of these countries, Rifkind said, belong in Eastern Europe, some in Central Europe and some elsewhere.
Ever since the collapse of the USSR, Western officials, academics and journalists have struggled to find a term to denote the 12 countries that emerged in its place. The three Baltic states, of course, were and continue to be treated separately.
"Former Soviet Union" as a term for the others, however, has become accepted for several reasons. Some of these are innocent and perhaps justified but others with profound and negative consequences of the kind Rifkind has pointed to.
The simplest explanation for the use of this term is intellectual laziness. In this view, there was the Soviet Union, and now there is the former Soviet Union, a perspective many in Moscow did nothing to discourage.
At a more serious level, many were prepared to use this term because of the many things these countries have in common particularly with regard to the transformations that their peoples and the West would like to see.
And further, these 12 states have formed a grouping -- the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) -- that the international community has had to react to.
Because of doubts about its legitimacy and about the role of Russia within it, many in the West have been reluctant to refer to the countries of this region in terms of the CIS. And for such people, "Former Soviet Union" is often seen as a neutral term.
Rifkind's words are a useful reminder, however, that this term, like any other word chosen to designate a group of countries, can and does have profound policy consequences.
Anyone who lumps these countries under the term "Former Soviet Union" will almost inevitably view them through a Moscow prism and thus evaluate them in Russian terms rather than in terms of their often very different interests.
This consequence of a terminological choice has been at the center of most public discussions on the enlargement of NATO.
Far too often, Moscow has insisted and Western governments have at least implicitly acknowledged that the former Soviet border continues to have meaning, even as both sides insist that they are not interested in drawing lines in Europe.
But the dangers that arise from such terminological continuity are even greater when they shape the structure of Western government insitutions.
In many cases, these foreign ministries are divided in precisely the same way they were structured when the Soviet Union still existed.
And in some countries, there have been suggestions that at least a few officials would like to create new bureaucratic arrangements to institutionalize the concept of the "Former Soviet Union."
Whether they or others recognize the policy consequences of such a move remains unclear, but Rifkind's words imply that it would have extremely negative consequences.
They also suggest that it is time to end the search for a single term to comprehend a group of countries whose greatest commonalities are in the past rather than in the future.
And that in turn means that "Former Soviet Union" should be retired as both a term and an idea.