International

Poll: Most in ex-Soviet states say USSR breakup harmful

A Gallup poll found that many people feel let down by dissolution of USSR, even as anti-Putin protests erupt in Ukraine

Eurasian leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, third from right, met at a summit in Minsk, Belarus, in October 2013.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty

After more than two decades of wars, revolutions and economic collapses, residents of states formerly part of the Soviet Union are more than twice as likely to say the split from Russia harmed their countries than benefitted them, according to Gallup poll results released Thursday.

Gallup asked more than a thousand citizens of 11 former Soviet states to reflect on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which happened 22 years ago next week, and found a nostalgic, Russophilic streak among seven of the 11 countries it surveyed – even Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets of Kiev to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence in their country.

Russians, too, appear to lament the USSR dissolution, with 55 percent saying it harmed Russia and only 19 percent reporting benefit.

Analysts say they are not surprised by the poll, which might be dissonant with the prevailing American perception of communist USSR as an oppressive regime from which most people should be grateful to break free.

“Most people see more harm than good that came out of the collapse of the integrated larger state,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute. “I don’t think anyone's really bemoaning the loss of communism – no one’s saying ‘bring back the 5-year plans' – but I don’t know anyone who feels they reaped massive personal benefit from the collapse.”

The two states most skewed toward a “harmful” assessment of Soviet dissolution – Armenia and Kyrgyzstan – both lost subsidies due to the sudden breakup and were plunged into poverty, from which they have yet to recover.

“You had the massive disintegration of an integrated economic entity,” Hill said. “Those two countries were both really jolted by the collapse. They were very much propped up by Moscow.”

Conversely, the oil-producing nations of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan were the only three states to assess the breakup as mostly beneficial.

Division and disappointment

The 1991 dissolution of the USSR, which occurred after several republics had already declared their independence, was not universally popular in the Union's other republics. A March 1991 government-run referendum found that a majority of the republics overwhelmingly supported preserving the USSR, perhaps as reflected in the Gallup poll.

The poll also reveals generational gaps, whereby those too young to remember life in the USSR actually have more positive views of the breakup, possibly because young people were less affected by the societal and personal impact.

Not all splits that resulted from the breakup fell along clear ethnic lines – in many cases, ethnic groups were marginalized or isolated in pockets of new independent states. Sometimes mixed marriages were torn apart. The ethnic Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minority, notably, have periodically clashed in Kyrgyzstan.

Many ex-Soviet citizens have also been let down by their post-Soviet rulers and indicate that hoped-for freedoms – deprived under the authoritarian USSR – have not materialized.

Tajikistan suffered under a bloody five-year civil war in the mid-1990s, in which nearly 100,000 died, but the war ended with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon clinging to power. He still rules the authoritarian state to this day.

Unsurprisingly, Tajik respondents to the Gallup poll were likely to say that “most or many” people in the country were afraid to express political views, and that they had overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the breakup.

Soviet nostalgia

The poll, conducted between June and August, is timely. Over the past couple of months, Russian efforts to turn former Soviet states eastward by drawing them into a Kremlin-led customs union have come to a head. Belarus and Kazakhstan – which was one of three states to favor the Soviet breakup in the poll – are already members of the union, which will soon include Armenia.

Russia’s Putin has been accused by Western officials of blackmailing Ukraine, which has recently accepted a cut in oil prices from Russia and a massive $15 billion debt relief package in exchange for spurning an EU trade pact.

But Putin has been met with strident opposition in several former Soviet states, most of all Ukraine.

In a Thursday op-ed she wrote from prison, Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed opposition leader – and former Ukrainian president – urged her compatriots to peacefully remove current President Viktor Yanukovich, Putin’s ally in Kiev, from power. She warned of a “new, post-Soviet empire.”

Failing to uproot Kremlin influence, Tymoshenko wrote in the Kyiv Post, “could lead to the birth of a new aggressive empire on the territory of the former Soviet Union that will distort the development of all humanity.”

More protests – though on a smaller scale – greeted Putin on his visit to the Armenian capital of Yerevan earlier this month. Protestors held signs saying, “Putin, go home” and “No to the USSR.”

But the Gallup poll paints a more complicated picture of the former Soviet states that might bolster Putin’s political overtures to the former Soviet Union – and the appeal of a customs union that restores transportation, economic and labor migration ties among states that were ripped apart in 1991, some experts say.

“Our integration project is based on equal rights and real economic interests,” Putin has said about the customs union, which is mutually exclusive from parallel EU pacts. Though he has mostly spoken in vague terms about the Eurasian Union, his emphasis on integration has resonated in places like Armenia, the most recent country to sign on.

“The poll could really help to underscore the crux of the union,” Hill told Al Jazeera. “The ability to play on nostalgia for this vast area, economically and politically, will really help.”

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