By Alexis Giannoulis
(RIEAS Research Associate & Security Analyst)
The autumn and winter of 2011 mark two important anniversaries for European and world history. Ten years ago, the spectacularly tragic events in New York and Washington, DC on September 11th, 2001 marked a new post-Cold War era for global affairs as well as for issues such as national, international security and international cooperation. Twenty years ago, during the period between the summer of 1991 and the December of that year, the world saw the gradual demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) following an uneasy period of reforms under Mikhael Gorbachev and a traumatic for all parts concerned decade of immense financial and leadership problems toppled with a painfully costly war and occupation in Afghanistan.
The soviet experiment which lasted almost 75 years and the fall of the “soviet empire” marked a significant period for Russia and all the Republics of the Union, beyond of course, the groundbreaking impact on the world stage as well as on the socialist movement on theoretical as well as on political level. The special significance of this rather sudden yet relatively peaceful regime change, did not concern merely the fact that a socialist country had started the (undoubtedly painful) transition to democracy, but marked a more profound change of the status quo of Russia, the citizens of Russia as well as the countries and peoples of the former USSR. Deeper issues also came to light such as what is to be “Russian”, where geographically and politically Russia stands as an independent federated entity within the global society of states and issues concerning self-determination based on ethnicity as well as problems regarding the legitimacy and structure of a vast federation like Russia or indeed the USSR itself.
Russia and Russians have a distinctive history as a nation, country and ethnic background. Unlike most major European countries of today such as Germany, the UK, France, Italy or Spain, Russia did not have the same historical, political and ethnic or social evolution.
A relatively new nation, Russians started gaining some common ethnic conscience only after the 9thc. AD when the Kievan Rus, a union of several smaller principalities and tribes, started taking shape after the settling in the region of Varangians, Scandinavian-originating tribes who settled in the central region of today’s European part of Russia between the Baltic sea and Kiev. It was an uneasy kingdom all along due to the vast variety of tribes settled there throughout the previous centuries from various regions of central and northern Eurasia. The acceptance of Christianity by Vladimir and Yaroslav in the 10th and 11th centuries and the noble links to the Eastern Roman Empire unified further the various tribes under one religion helping towards the creation of a very basic ‘national consciousness’.
However, the eastward expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the main successor of the Kiev-based kingdom, after the end of the Mongol rule and the eventual creation of the Russian empire was not a matter of voluntary formation but of expansive wars that stopped only when the land did so as well to the east and north, and till serious resistance had been met in the south and south-east. What was for the Roman people the realm of Rome outside the region of Lazio, was for the newly-created Russian nation the regions east of Muscovy. It is thus safe to say that what we know today as “Russia” was born as an empire and not as a nation state after processes such as the unification that the Italian and German principalities and republics saw in Europe during the past centuries. Nor was it a creation based on common, ancient, past and cultural background-it was a forceful expansion within the framework of creating a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual empire under the Czar. Although population mixes have occurred, Russian authorities during the years of the Empire failed to culturally integrate the vast amount of local tribes throughout the realm and create a common “Russian” identity similar to today’s “Spanish” or “British” identity which both include more than one ethnic groups.
The creation of the Soviet Union by the beginning of 1920s changed the framework of political coexistence and placed it under a political, socialist framework which, based -at least in theory- on global socialist principles, saw the unification of the various peoples on the principle of citizenship and ‘soviet’ ethnicity. The policies of Korenizatsiia (1) for instance along with the New Economic Policy (NEP) which lasted until the early 1930s saw the creation of a soviet conscience in the regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia by amplifying religious elements, aiming at creating the first common national awareness of all the peoples (mainly of Turkic origin) of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The brutal Stalin years that followed until the WWII put an end to this peaceful process which however had some limited yet short-lived success.
It was therefore mainly authoritarianism that kept this vast political entity united until 1991 when the Union was dissolved. In the years that followed 1991 and with the Chechen war under way, major questions arose related to self-determination, border change, legitimacy and federalism. As the internal borders of both the Soviet Union as well as the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) were designed by Joseph Stalin himself, they were designed in such a way that no major ethnic group can have external land borders within the RSFSR. Also, several autonomous republics, regions and areas (“okrugs” and “rayons”) were cutting through ethnic groups. Add to that the forced replacements of the 1930s as well as 1940 under the pretext of the WWII and its aftermath and it becomes clear that the ethnic divisions and boundaries within the USSR but mainly Russia created a rather chaotic ethnic and federal ‘map’.
On Christmas day in December 1991 a dramatic televised address and resignation by M. Gorbachev put the last nail to the coffin of the USSR, which, in effect had ceased to exist by early December with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Belarus. Russia, along with the rest of the republics found themselves, in essence for the very first time in their history at least since the creation of Kievan Rus some 1000 years earlier, to be independent. Whereas in most other republics the majority of the population consisted mainly of one ethnic group, Russia remained a multi-ethnic federation with problems of legitimacy in trying to keep intact this federation. As borders were designed by Stalin and kept Russia together mainly with force, that is without the consent of the various ethnic groups that used to live in independent communities and regions, throughout the past 10 centuries Moscow now faced the nightmare scenario of watching the federation dissolving. The first such major incident being the Chechen war of independence, something that Stalin could never imagine since the region borders his home country, Georgia. The crucial fact that most of the ethnic republics and regions did not have external borders was a crucial factor that kept the Russian Federation together. Whereas the first decade of independence was a rather traumatic one for Russia on all levels as the country saw the worst economic downfall any country had ever seen during peacetime, the entrance of Vladimir Putin and his circle into Russian politics and the gradual regeneration of the Russian economy (mainly due to Russia’s dominance of the energy market) but not necessarily of Russian democracy and civil society, marked a new post-Soviet period for the country.
Nevertheless, it is safe to argue that democratic (at least compared to its past) Russia, 20 years ahead is still in a transitional period as almost all former Soviet states, with the exception of the Baltic ones, are. Old grievances have not been forgotten especially in the Caucasus, which remains a highly volatile region, mainly due to the fact that Moscow has failed to provide the region with a better economic and social environment and opportunities for further growth. It is Russia’s strength rather than the progress of the region and some of its republics that have prohibited a war and revolt similar to the ones during 1990s.
Looking back, this is certainly not the end of the road for Russia and Russians as a people, nation and country. Although major long-term problems such as the low birth rate of ethnic Russians with the simultaneous increase of the non-Slavic populations, and major issues regarding the operation of the free market, corruption, public spending, unemployment in certain regions and the emergence of civil society, Russia has made some progress balancing between realpolitik and western political practices. It is important for all to keep in mind that Russia proper has never had a democratic past and certain processes have been absent within the country’s civil society. Taking into account the many peculiarities and special conditions as well as the political culture of the population, which does exist despite the undemocratic past, Russia has a long yet promising way to move forward. The more this political and social evolution progresses the more self-conscious the citizens of Russia will become and the more proactive hence participating increasingly more to the political processes which have been missed so much by the 20-years-now emerging civil society.
The upcoming elections may be the first in the history of Russia that we could see even a limited yet true debate between two candidates. Although the honesty will be naturally questioned, it may be a slow, short yet important first step towards true electoral debates and race in general. If both Medvedev and Putin run even with a consensus of what will happen to the defeated one, this may be the first time the Russians will actually have a choice when it comes to electing a President.
Those who have been dealing with and following events in Russia during these past years will concur that the more choices Russians will have in the future, the more wise and ‘educated’ decisions will make. Their overall education and realistic approach to politics guarantees that albeit slow, the evolution of the Russian state and civil society can turn out to the benefit of the Russians, the region and the world.
1)“Korenizatsiia” meaning “rooting-in” was a policy of the CPSU in the 1920s and early 1930s which saw the creation of a socialist identity only after the necessary “evil” stage of national identity (as a step forward from the tribal and nomadic identity) for the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus who had never been under any nation-state but lived predominantly in a nomad and tribal fashion.