Two decades later, ex–Soviet republics reject absolute independence

In a globalized economy, economic integration with larger unions has become essential

January 14, 2014 11:00AM ET
Demonstrators at the Internal Affairs Ministry in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 8, 2014.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

The national revolutions in the former Soviet Union surprised most Kremlin watchers when they began in 1989. The general wisdom was that, beyond the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940s — everyone else in the USSR believed they were Soviet.

On the usually quiet streets of Kishinev (now Chisinau) in the Moldavian Republic, however, ethnic Moldovans fought ethnic Russians in nationalist clashes. In 1990 in Kiev, hunger-striking students starved for Ukrainian independence on the cold stone steps of the Maidan. In January 1991, the darkest days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule, Russian tanks barreled over protesters in Vilnius, Lithuania, taking the lives of 14 civilians.

The cries for national self-determination broke the formerly indivisible Soviet Union into a heap of quarreling fragments. The collapse of the USSR was reminiscent of the partition of multinational empires into smaller nation-states under the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson is erroneously credited with coining the phrase “national self-determination” in his Fourteen Points speech, which became the founding document for the breakup of European empires at Versailles in 1918.

Wilson, in fact, never uttered those words in that speech. Instead, he advocated for self-governance of all people in an increasingly interdependent global economy within the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, formed to maintain peace and security. When the Soviet empire finally collapsed in 1991, only Central Asia — including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan — had no real national movements seeking independence. Central Asian leaders, the last to flee the crumbling union, said they would rather stay at that time, fearing the economic viability of their republics as nation-states.

A recent Gallup poll flips this historical picture. More than two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, residents in seven out of 11 former Soviet republics were more likely to see harm than benefit from the breakup. Respondents in Central Asian states — except Uzbeks, who were not polled — were more likely to believe the collapse was beneficial.

If all these years later, most residents of former Soviet republics are more than twice as likely to look grimly on the separation of their states from the USSR, what does this poll say about the desire for national self-determination that was so pivotal in the early 1990s?

It speaks volumes.

Nationalist flags at a pro-independence rally in Lvov, Ukraine, two decades ago.
Chris Niedenthal/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of protesters in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, are braving cold weather to demonstrate against President Victor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign two European Union association agreements that would have facilitated trade, finance and travel between Ukraine and Western Europe. Twenty-two years after independence, Ukrainian protesters are waving the yellow and blue emblem of the European Union alongside the Ukrainian trident. The EU flag is not one you would expect people to fight and die over, but indeed they are doing just that — about 100 Ukrainians have ended up in hospitals. Unlike those of the early 1990s, today’s protesters are more concerned about their economic health than national autonomy.

Ukrainian protesters, in other words, are willing to jettison the country’s economic independence in this global economy. In 2012, Ukraine’s national debt was a sizable 36 percent of GDP. Seeking its place in the global economy, Ukraine has been pulled between Europe and Russia. Along with Georgia, Ukraine is one of the last to hold out from joining the Russian-dominated Customs Union, which is economically piecing back together most of the nations of former Soviet Union.

Last fall, as Yanukovych’s administration pursued negotiations with the EU, Vladimir Putin’s government sought to make a show of Ukraine’s dependence on the Russian economy. Moscow slowed freight traffic between Ukraine and Russia and paused Russian orders of Ukrainian steel, autos and machinery. Persuaded by this demonstration, in November, Yanukovych pulled back from signing the EU agreement. Ukrainians took to the streets in protest. A public opinion poll late last year found that 45 percent of Ukrainians wanted closer association with the EU while only 14 percent wanted to join the Customs Union, which many fear would lead to a renewed Russian domination over the Ukrainian little brother.

The anxiety over economic well-being is not limited to Ukraine. Citizens in almost all the ex–Soviet republics are registering displeasure with their states’ autonomy at a rate that just about matches the indebtedness of those countries. In Armenia and Belarus, the national debts were 37 percent of GDP, while Moldova came in at 22 percent last year. The three states in the Gallup poll where residents were happy with their self-determination ­— Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan ­— are oil-rich countries with very low rates of national debt, ranging from 7 to 11 percent.

A new formula for sovereignty

What if one of the biggest political mistakes of the 20th century was an irrational belief in national self-determination over other forms of self-rule? The economic failures of the Central European states after the Treaty of Versailles led to fascism and World War II. That war brought about the integration of these states as republics or satellites of rival Cold War superpowers.

A similar integration process is taking place again as Russian leaders seek to reincorporate former Soviet republics into their economic realm while the European Union takes in the rest. The chief proponents of national self-determination are rarely the crowds on the streets but rather intellectuals and entrepreneurs who stand to gain from sovereign boundaries over which they can rule. The enrichment of Yanukovych, Boris Yeltsin, Putin and former Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov is a great testament to the fact that there is a lot of money to be made by taking over a recently decolonized state.

Historians are recognizing, however, that citizens have often been flexible in their allegiances, multilingual in their daily lives and international and populist rather than nationalist in their political ideologies. Most Ukrainians, for example, easily slip between being Ukrainian and Russian and increasingly speak English and German. Pragmatic, adaptable and cosmopolitan, they do not feel the need to tear off one another’s clothes as Ukrainian leaders recently did in parliament over the question of national language. Increasingly claustrophobic inside national boundaries, the crowds on the street want to be a part of broader international associations, which would give them the right to travel, trade and express themselves freely.

This is true in Western Europe, South America and Asia as it is in Eastern Europe. If Catalonians or Scots were to gain their desired independence from Spain and Britain, I would hazard a guess that within a few years, the new national leaders would seek membership in an international economic union — one that would largely dissolve the national borders they fought to create.

Wilson, in the end, was right. As the experience of ex–Soviet republics reveals, international associations combined with local self-governance may just be the new formula for sovereignty in a global economy.

Kate Brown is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of two award-winning books: "Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters" and “A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland." Her most recent book "Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten" will be published by the University of Chicago Press in April 2015.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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