Defining the “Post-Soviet Space” door Peter LAVELLE op Russia Profile, september 2005.
Contributors: Peter Rutland, Janusz Bugajski, Gordon Hahn, Dale Herspring, Vladimir Frolov, Andrei Tsygankov, Eric Kraus, Patrick Armstrong, Ira Straus and Donald Jensen
Peter Lavelle: The term “Post-Soviet Space” is used a lot in Russia, although the meaning is not always immediately clear. Does the term apply only to the geographic area that was once part of the Soviet Union or regimes that have yet to completely free themselves from the Soviet mindset (i.e. style of rule)? Often among Russian political thinkers, the “post-Soviet space” is another term used under the rubric of “Eurasianism” – a non-Western imperial project that will allow small former Soviet republics to “retain their identity” under Russia's big umbrella.
First, is it time to retire the term “post-Soviet space” for something much more refined? After all, many of the new independent states that were part of the Soviet Union have taken very different developmental (political and economic) trajectories.
Second, and in brief, does “Eurasianism” as part of Russia’s foreign policy (as opposed to some kind of messianic “civilizing mission”) make any sense under conditions of globalization?
Third, wouldn’t it be better to use the appellation “post-Soviet economic development zone”? There is always a lot of media heat, but little light, when it comes to military bases and pipelines. Not nearly as much attention, however, is devoted to the economic development of the former Soviet states. During Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Russia has very aggressively pursued policies to integrate its neighbors – usually by use of energy exports and mineral resource extraction technologies. This makes perfect economic and business sense – a country’s national interests simply demands that it take advantage of competitive advantages.
Thus, shouldn’t we be more focused on economic development as opposed to over-dramatized and easy to over-play political developments? Would this approach basically undercut the terms “post-Soviet space” and “Eurasianism?”
Peter Rutland, professor of political science at Wesleyan University:
Yes, it is definitely time to retire the term “post-Soviet space.” Some countries in the “post-Soviet space” have completed their post-soviet purgatory, while other nations have hardly begun the process. Another problem is that in English (and for that matter in Russian), the word “space” connotes an empty void. Not a very constructive approach to studying a region.
“Eurasia” has so much political baggage that it too should be avoided. If it must be invoked, always use it along with another term (“Eurasian landmass,” “Eurasian heartland”) to make clear that it is a geographical and not a metaphysical term.
Now that the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians are members of the European Union, the “Eastern Europe” label is available and can be used to designate the eastern neighbors of the EU – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. From a geographical point of view, this is the logical way to go. The problem is that “Eastern Europe” sounds rather tired, and smacks of the Cold War. But if we start using it with this new designation, it could catch on. And neologisms (“outer Europe”?) seem phony. I don't see any real objections to calling Central Asia “Central Asia,” or the Caucasus “the Caucasus.”
Janusz Bugajski, director of the East Europe Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington:
Loaded political terms constantly repeated by politicians, journalists, and commentators become accepted wisdom and affect perceptions. In the case of terms referring to international arrangements and the status of individual countries, such perceptions infect political relations and policy decisions. Several terms have survived the Soviet Union or were created after its demise by leaders and opinion-makers, who support Russian interests ahead of the country's many neighbors. They have been manipulated by the government in Moscow to perpetuate the notion of an eternal Russian sphere of culture, society, politics, security, and economic interests that transcends the current frontiers of the Russian Federation. Such language helps to foster the Kremlin's imperialist designs along Russia's borders.
”Post-Soviet space” is intended to cement several lasting perceptions. First, that there is a coherent geographic and political territory that is distinct from Europe and NATO and that this “space” should be excluded from Western integration. Second, that such a territory has a natural center and a consistent leadership in Moscow regardless of any particular ideology or policy. Third, that it is incumbent on Russia to protect and secure this “space” and to pursue its “civilizing mission,” which can be cultural, political, or even economic. President Putin taps into such sentiments when adopting the role of a benevolent Great Russia leader.
”Post-Soviet space” may be interchangeable with “Eurasia,” but the terms are not synonymous. “Eurasianism” has additional connotations as it inflates Russia to an even larger dimension as a counterpart to both Europe and Asia or, even more grandly, as the only power capable of spanning and integrating both continents. “Eurasianism” as identity also implies Russia's defense of distinct countries that are allegedly threatened by Westernism, Americanism, and globalization, even if these countries lie outside the “post-Soviet space.”
”Eurasianism” also has an Orthodox and mystical component as the Kremlin seeks to benefit from the Church's traditional assertions about a unique Russian spirituality that supposedly transcends the “material West.” This non-materialism may even include non-Orthodox believers in the mythical “Eurasia,” especially if they view Russian national interests as paramount or display a healthy dose of anti-Americanism. Such distorted and simplified images of a “Russian soul” may seem comical in the West, but they have resonance among citizens who are reassured by state and Church propaganda that they are different, special, or even superior to foreigners, particularly Americans and Europeans.
It is time for Western governments to discard the “post-Soviet space" and “Eurasia” terminology. Both terms are inaccurate and insulting to the residents of diverse countries with divergent aspirations. Such terms also create a strong impression that Washington and Brussels will keep these states at a distance and accepts the premise that they should remain subservient to Russian national interests. Inventing new “post-Soviet” terms simply serves two purposes – it helps promote Moscow's interests above that of its many neighbors and it substitutes thoughtful analysis with lazy thinking.
Gordon Hahn, independent scholar on Russia and related affairs:
I see no particular reason to retire the term as yet. The commonalities between the post-Soviet states – what Stephen Kotkin termed “Trashcanistan” – with some possible rare exceptions (the Baltic states), still hold: deep, endemic corruption; poverty; and authoritarianism (with a few weak and unconsolidated democracies) rooted in the persistence of the Soviet communist nomenklatura and/or its children dominating positions of political and economic power.
It should be remembered that, except perhaps again for the Baltic states and parts of Russia, none of the areas in the region where there are now states had gone through the industrializing modernization process before the Soviet totalitarian experiment and were then subjected to the perversities of that experiment, which produced a forced artificial modernization process, which is unique to this “space,” except for perhaps other areas (China, North Korea, Vietnam) which could also be considered as part of the Eurasian space, depending on one’s definition (though probably not according to a truly Gumilyovian one).
It seems to me that many, though not all, of those who found the term objectionable, did so because there was an ideological rather than scientific reason. I mean a certain group of analysts who are, for perhaps lack of a better term, “Russophobic.” They consider Russia to have no business seeking, no less having influence in the region. It should be pushed out by NATO expansion and even EU expansion and left alone, hopefully to break up into a group of small bickering Russian states.
On the usefulness or logic of Eurasianism as a strand or even the foundation of Russian foreign policy in the “space” in conditions of globalization, it all depends on what one means by Eurasianism. If it means simply using some understanding or concept of historical, ethno-cultural, even civilizational commonalities among the peoples and/or states find themselves in the post-Soviet or Eurasian space without a political or economic agenda, then it seems it could be useful, assuming those commonalities exist (some of which no doubt do). However, the common historical experience as well as ethnic, cultural, and civilizational factors create divisions within, as well as unite the “space.” If this means a political project aimed at a union state, confederation, or even customs union, these have clearly proven unrealistic at present. There is certainly no need for a “Eurasianist” or “non-Western imperial project that will allow small former Soviet republics to ‘retain their identity’ under Russia's big umbrella,” except perhaps if, in the early 1990s, it was based on a short-term democratization project led by the West and Russia in partnership. Otherwise, any such project is likely to be a new form of Russian imperialism, which none of Russia, its neighbors or the world needs.
On the other hand, as I have written elsewhere, if the “Eurasian idea” could be adopted to the economic imperative of globalization – using Russia’s geographical position and relative economic weight within the “space” to foster strong economic ties, growth, and development for all – and transformed into a largely economic Eurasianism, then perhaps international economic and then decades down the road political international organizations might evolve.
Dale Herspring, professor of political science at Kansas State University. Herspring is a military scholar and retired career diplomat, as well as a U.S. Navy Captain (ret.):
In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty comments, “the words I use have the meaning I give to them.” To be honest, I don't care whether or not writers use the term Post-Soviet. On the other hand, Humpty Dumpty was right – they have an obligation to define the term because as Peter Lavelle’s question pointed out, the fact is that the term is being used differently by different people. To be honest, I don't really know what it means.
For example, look at the military sphere. Does “post-Soviet militaries” refer to the three Baltic Republics? After all, they are now part of NATO? What about the now independent militaries in Central Asia, or the Transcaucus? If so, what is the writer trying to indicate? That they came from the Soviet Army and, therefore, that they should be looked at differently from other militaries? If so, in what ways? They are not the only militaries that use Soviet equipment, nor are they the only ones who have followed Soviet-type organizational patterns? Or are we talking about a mind-set that is based on the Soviet military? My point is that if one decides to use the term, that is fine, but it needs to be defined so the reader understands what the writer is implying.
I am not sure what Eurasianism means. Here again, much depends on the definition. Frankly, while I recognize that Russia's relations with some countries in Asia are different from those elsewhere, I think a good argument could be made that Moscow's most important foreign relations are with Europe and the United States. I think far too much was made of the recent Chinese-Russian military maneuvers and the sale of Russian weapons to Beijing. Asia is important to Moscow, but Putin is aware that the West holds much more importance over the long run.
Finally, I agree with Peter Lavelle. I don't know what the “post-Soviet economic development zone” refers to. Why not call and ace and ace. Why not speak of Russian economic and political ties, and then evaluate them in accordance of importance, regardless of whether they are in Asia or Europe. Of course, Moscow is going to try to tie the countries of Central Asia (and elsewhere) to itself using oil and gas, for example.
In the end, we need to go back to Humpty Dumpty regardless of what term we use and define it.
Vladimir Frolov, Fund for Effective Politics, Moscow:
I have never seen much value in using the terms “Post-Soviet space,” “the Near Abroad,” “the Former Soviet States” or “the New Independent States.” Their sole advantage is in allowing for an effective sound bite in political commentary and diplomatic cable traffic. Although the political and socio-economic similarities between those states are clearly there, they are not the drivers that determine their evolution and post-Soviet transition. Local dynamics and players are much more important.
It is probably more apt to talk about some common regional patterns (Baltic states, Central Asian “Stans” – Kazakhstan standing alone with meaningful economic reform, Russia and Ukraine – Anders Aslund would disagree with this, Georgia-Armenia, Azerbaijan as somewhat distinct). But, even there, differences are no less and may be even more important that similarities. As for relationships with Russia and other big powers, no clearly identifiable common pattern emerges (the Baltic states being the exception).
It is clear that Moscow no longer sees much value in lumping those states together. Almost all “intergrationist projects” are either frozen or are proceeding on a bilateral or trilateral basis. The Kremlin’s latest proposal to the West to set transparent rules of the game in the region can only be implemented on a country-by-country basis.
However, the term will linger on for a while. It is convenient for explaining the complexities of the region by the media to the disengaged public.
Eurasianism is a more complex notion that dates back to early 20th century Russian political thinking. However, its value as a mobilizing political strategy in Russia’s foreign policy is limited – it inspires relatively few Russians – and it could hardly be adapted to the complex realities of the modern world. It has lackluster support even in the states that could be described as swayed by the notion – Russia and Kazakhstan. Ukraine does not consider itself a Eurasian country, and it is unfathomable for Russia to pursue a geopolitical project that would permanently exclude Ukraine – the ties between the two countries are much stronger than between the United States and Canada, for instance. So putting much stock in Eurasianism is a losing proposition for Russia.
It is high time for Russia and the West to view the region as a long-term development project. The expansion of Russian big business into the Former Soviet Union should be welcomed as the most realistic development proposition (remember that before Russian electricity monopoly UES’ takeover of Georgia’s electricity generation system in 2003 an American company had utterly failed to make it a viable business). Some FSU states are clearly failing (Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan), and will need serious development aid to survive. Putin’s call on the G-8 to make development aid to the region an important item on the Moscow G-8 summit agenda is a very important step in the right direction. Focusing on demographic trends and health issues, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in the region could be “the next big thing” on the Russia-West cooperation agenda for the future.
Andrei Tsygankov, professor of international relations, San Francisco State University:
Concepts of the post-Soviet space and Eurasianism are indeed outdated. In the late 1990s, both concepts obtained hegemonic meanings and now hinder Russia’s adaptation to the realities of greater economic openness and political and cultural pluralism in the world. That said, however, new global realities have not wiped out some historically built structural inter-dependencies of a cultural and economic nature in the region. Energy, transportation, linguistic, ethnic, and family ties will continue to unite the region despite the diverse political trajectories of the newly independent states. Nor has the brave new world of globalization abolished national interests and competition for power, resources and prestige in international politics. By virtue of its size, resource endowment, and position as the former imperial center, Russia has considerable advantages over many other competitors. After a decade of identity crisis, it has begun to strengthen its influence and now works harder than ever to mobilize its soft power in the region – a subject we addressed in one of our previous panels. Structural dependencies and inter-dependencies are not things that can be cut short overnight, and they will continue to be of assistance in the gathering of Russia’s new influence for many years to come.
Finding a suitable analytical replacement may, therefore, be quite a challenge. For quite some time Russians have tried to come to grips with realities of a globalizing, yet regionally inter-dependent and nationally sensitive world. Vladimir Lukin and Sergei Stankevich introduced the notion of liberal statism, arguing that market economy and political democracy should be viewed as compatible with distinct state interests. Aleksandr Panarin pioneered the idea of civilized Eurasianism, which, in his early writings, was respectful of democracy and human rights, but saw Eurasianism as the region’s cultural and geopolitical distinctiveness. Gleb Pavlovsky coined another term “Euro-East” – seeking to position the ex-Soviet world as open to European influences, yet poised to preserve a special influence. Along the same lines, the head of the Russia’s state electricity company, Anatoly Chubais, wrote that the main goal in the 21st century should be to build up a “liberal empire” through the strengthening of Russia’s position in the former Soviet Union. In their own way, “liberal statism,” “civilized Eurasianism,” “Euro-East,” and “liberal imperialism,” have each sought to address the global-regional-national nexus and propose a way to connect with global values, while preserving a historically special regional and national identity.
These of course are Russian notions, and they reflect Russian perspectives on developments in the region. Many in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova view them with suspicion and feel threatened by prospects of Russia’s soft power patronage. Undoing the legacy of cultural fears and imperial misperceptions takes a long time. Until this happens, Russia is likely to be suspect, whatever its genuine intentions are and whatever concepts or ideas it produces regarding the spatial organization in the region. Therefore if the appellation “post-Soviet economic development zone” comes from Russia, it, too, is likely to be perceived by some outsiders as a new imperialist project similar to those of the old Eurasianism and the post-Soviet space.
Eric Kraus, chief strategist, Sovlink Securities, Moscow:
The term “post-Soviet space” seems fairly useless indeed, and should be abandoned. This “space” comprises a disparate group of countries, highly divergent in terms of history, economic development and cultural attraction. Some of them are indeed drawing closer to Russia, while others have pulled away. While some have legitimate historical grievances, it is probably time to out-grow these – Russia's own historical grievances (since the early 19th century, she has been totally devastated three times by Western armies) have been put aside. The Poles and Lithuanians could learn from her example.
What is perhaps unfortunate is that, in the understandable haste to atone for past errors, the first post-Soviet governments surrendered not just Soviet domination of countries with no obvious ties to Russia, but also, Russia's legitimate security concerns. It is totally unacceptable that speakers of Russian should be reduced to the status of non-persons in the Baltic, nor that Ukraine's historic and cultural links with Russia be denied. One can imagine how the United States would react to a hostile Russian-sponsored regime taking power in Mexico (certainly, a case could be made that massive human rights violations in some of the United States’s southern neighbors necessitate international intervention…). In the case of Cuba, the world came to the brink of nuclear war before they were forced to acknowledge its continued existence.
Despite a couple of major diplomatic failures, off the front pages, Russia is working to knit her immediate neighbours into a closer regional cooperation. Certainly, many of them are dependant upon Russian energy and access to Russian markets – it is natural that closer political ties develop on this basis. Countries which adopt an openly anti-Russian line certainly no longer need live in fear of Russian tanks – on the other hand, they should certainly not expect to receive heavily subsidized Russian gas. If the United States and the European Union wish to adopt them, then they should be ready to shower generous subsidies on them – thus far, they have proved singularly disinclined to do so. Having won their quick political victories, the Americans left Ukraine to be farmed by her new oligarchic owners – the promised economic aid was forgotten as a rather over-extended United States went back to trying to extinguish fires. The European Union is equally stretched, and certainly has no desire to inherit the tutelage of Eastern neighbours in economic collapse.
Russia faces a steep learning curve in terms of diplomacy and communications. While there is no reason to suspect imperialistic ambitions, for historic reasons she will be viewed with some measure of suspicion. It would behove her to work on building mutually beneficial relations with her near abroad with some measure of sensitivity and tact. Mr. Putin’s administration makes mistakes, but they also show a refreshing tendency to learn from those mistakes.
Patrick Armstrong, defense analyst for the Canadian government:
I can think of at least two meanings of “post-Soviet space.” The first simply refers to the 15 countries formerly locked up in the Soviet Union. People in the Kremlin, who yearn for a world in which Moscow had its group and Washington had its, dress this up as "Eurasianism" to make it look if such a grouping is natural and right. The anti-Russia lobby also likes to trot it out to beat Moscow. Other than that, the expression doesn't seem to have a lot of meaning.
The second application, which does correspond to any reality, refers to those countries that used to live under Marxism-Leninism and under Moscow's influence or control. This group would include the former Soviet Union and former Warsaw Pact and its territory runs, therefore, from the old inter-German border far to the east. In this case, the expression “post-Soviet space” can remind us that their common problems have common causes. They have the same problems: obsolete industries, a great deal of pollution, venal and idle – but ever-increasing - bureaucracies, endemic corruption, low birth rates, high death rates, unemployment, collapsed social services, decayed physical infrastructure, creepy new rich and criminal-business-political connections.
In many cases they have armed forces with mounds of obsolete and unnecessary equipment presided over by underpaid and nostalgic generals. In many cases there are presidents-for-life and show democracies.
Ethnic tension is frequently high thanks to the Leninist nationalities policy that created itches that could not be scratched. Social atomism created by totalitarianism remains in many places. In short, what this “post-Soviet space” shares is negative: Even the economic links between them exist because there is no alternative. Different countries, to be sure, have these problems in different degrees and are solving them – or not – at different rates. But a common family of problems, which can all be traced back to Marxism-Leninism and its rule, can be seen throughout this “post-Soviet space." So, in this sense, there is some use in keeping the expression around for a while.
Ira Straus, U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia on NATO:
All “spaces” have problematic aspects, but “post-Soviet space” is a term that reflects a deep reality. It is, to be sure, only one of several spaces traversing Eurasia that reflect overlapping or mutually embedded realities.
What really needs to be clarified is "Eurasianism." It has two very different forms, and a lot of hysteria has been created about Russia by confusing the two.
1. Ideological Eurasianism. This Eurasianism has been expounded as a geopolitical-spiritual ideology by writers like Alexander Dugin, building on Nazi geopolitical theorists, with Atlanticism as its designated enemy. It is intended as an alternative to the mainstream Westernizing line of Russian development for the last several decades.
2. Pragmatic Eurasianism. This Eurasianism is expounded by leading figures such as Chernomyrdin and Putin. It accepts the facts of geographical life for Russia, which is located with its head and population in Europe and its large barren rear end in Asia. It speaks of paying good attention to Russia's Asian, as well as its European relations and interests.
Pragmatic Eurasianism does not oppose Europeanism. It continues with Atlanticism – accommodation to and cooperation with Atlantic global leadership, and seeking Russia's integrated place as a part of this leadership – as the core of Russia's global strategic and socio-political orientation. It has headed off the Ideological Eurasianists by making a point of paying attention to the things they accuse the Atlanticists of neglecting. It has thereby provided a more relaxed and sustainable language for proceeding with the Atlantic orientation after the early 1990s enthusiasm for it had dissipated.
Pragmatic Eurasianism is not a global identity but a regional identity of Russia, on a par with Russia's European regional identity. Both of these identities are inevitable for Russia. They can be fully reconciled only by subsuming them within Atlanticism, which is located on a wider plane as an inter-regional civilizational identity and a base for operations on the global scale.
Russian society is more European than Asian, just as the United States is more European than Native American. But Russian foreign policy can be no more purely Europeanist at the expense of its Asian connections than American foreign policy could be purely Europeanist at the expense of its inter-American connections.
When some Westerners demand that Russia renounce all Eurasianism for the sake of Atlanticism, they make a bad mistake, obstructing Russia from proceeding with Atlanticism. Such a renunciation of local-regional interests is something no other country in the Atlantic Alliance has been asked to make, and for good reason: If they were, there could be no Atlantic Alliance.
Some Russian Atlanticists also oversimplify, trying to settle domestic political scores by anathematizing all Eurasianism. So do some Eastern European nationalists and their co-ethnics in America, using salami tactics: first anathematize as un-Atlantic the necessary element of Eurasianism in Russia, then anathematize as Eurasianist and un-Atlantic any Eastern Europeans or post-Soviets who see the need for cooperation with Russia.
Despite all these pressures for reduction to two-camp thinking, the remarkable fact is that responsible Russian leaders have for more than a decade refused to yield, holding to a primary Atlantic orientation on the global scale and a dual Euro-Eurasianist focus on the regional scale. And Western governments have resisted the pressures to anathematize Russia for this. It indicates that there is a possibility of moving further in this period with Russia-West cooperation in the post-Soviet space and with the reconciliation of Eurasianism and Atlanticism.
Donald Jensen, director of communications, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:
The term post-Soviet space means many things to many people. It is a geographic area comprising the rough expanse of the former Soviet Union (I am never sure whether it is supposed to include East Central Europe). It can refer to the authoritarian states on Russia's periphery whose elites still maintain neo-Soviet regimes. As you implied, it is a euphemism justifying Moscow's retention of a sphere of influence in that part of the world. Above all, it is it is an unfortunate oversimplification that ignores an increasingly diverse group of countries. It is time to retire the phrase and, as importantly, to make sure we do not begin to substitute the word Eurasianism, which suffers to an even greater degree from the same problems.
Even within the rough geographical clusters of former-Soviet republics – the Baltic states, Ukraine/Belarus, the Caucasus, and Central Asia – the states appear to have very different trajectories. For example, while the five Central Asian countries have been been ruled by corrupt, clan and ethnic-based authoritarian elites, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan are moving in opposite directions.
Second, Eurasianism is not an acceptable rationale for Russian foreign policy. It would justify the yearning by part of the Russian elite for political and economic hegemony over its neighbors. It incorrectly suggests that Russian has a special role to play in those areas, when, in fact, its very legitimate interests can be taken into account on the basis of "normal" state-to-state relations.
The appellation Economic Development Zone is better, but still inadequate. Relations between Russia and the other former Soviet republics are in large part economic, but they are more frequently exploitative rather than “developmental.” We probably give too much attention to the political dimension, as you say, but it is nonetheless important, as some key parts of the Russian establishment have yet to fully reconcile themselves to the existence of the former Soviet states as independent entities.
As time goes on, the parts of the former Soviet Union will less frequently be ruled by leaders schooled in Soviet-style governance. As these countries go their separate ways, concepts such as post-Soviet space and Eurasianism are likely to disappear as political, economic and social concepts. While Russia will remain the most influential nation in these regions, it will have to pay more attention to the uniqueness of each of its neighbors – and on the basis of genuine equality – if it hopes to carry out an effective foreign policy.
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