Friday, January 23, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Failure to Understand Ethnicity Destroyed the USSR and Now Threatens Russia, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 23 – Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to understand the significance of ethnic differences led him to take actions that helped to destroy the Soviet Union, and a similar lack of understanding of the importance of nationality by many Russian leaders now threatens the survival of the Russian Federation, according to several leading Moscow analysts.
On Wednesday, at a Moscow session entitled “The Crisis of Nationality Policy in the USSR at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s,” speaker after speaker said that if Moscow had been paying attention to the role of ethnicity in Soviet life, the country “would have been able to avoid many tragic events” (
But at the session, timed to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the Alma Ata riots that took place after Gorbachev installed an ethnic Russian in place of a Kazakh as party chief there and the 19th anniversary of his use of force in Baku that ended any chance of reconciliation within the framework of the Soviet Union, they bemoaned the fact that Moscow had not done so.
And more importantly, they suggested that the current Russian leadership was making the same mistake and with potentially the same consequences for the Russian Federation, a point that was underlined by an interview of someone not at the conference, Russia’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Ramazan Abdulatipov (
Moscow State University expert Aleksey Vlasov was especially pointed in his remarks. He noted that instead of attending to “the quite clear signal from under the rubble” that that the Alma Ata events sent, Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership behaved as they always had, believing that force alone would be sufficient to maintain stability.
And consequently, they refused to consider that there might be a need to adopt a more flexible nationality policy, to talk to the national intelligentsias or to work with young people, confident that as long as everything looked stable, that was in fact the case – a comment that is eerily echoed in the approach Vladimir Putin has adopted toward ethnic groups.
Importantly, Vlasov insisted that the problem was not simply one of Gorbachev’s own making: Soviet nationality policy was internally inconsistent “by definition,” something many of his opponents are unwilling to see, preferring instead to blame the first Soviet president or “foreign” conspiracies.
And consequently, they like their predecessors at the end of the Soviet period do not appear to recognize how easy and quickly groups can pass “from friendship to hostility” or how few choices the leadership of a multi-national state like the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation actually have in this sphere.
Either the state can crush any manifestation of ethnic assertiveness through the use of coercion – an action that entails many other problems including the impossibility of modernization of society – Vlasov said, or it can enter into a dialogue with representatives of all groups, take into account their views, and work with them rather than against them.
Three other speakers make similar points. Moscow’s Aleksandr Karavayev said that the failure of the Soviet leadership to understand ethnicity was highlighted by the fact that only after “the departure of the USSR from the political scene” were the peoples on what had been its territory able to have a “full birth” as nations in the political sense.
Alla Yazykova, the head of the Mediterranean and Black Sea Center of the Institute of Europe, did not disagree, but she made two key points. Her contacts with Azerbaijani colleagues had demonstrated to her that “unlike us Russians, they very well understand their own history and events” like January 1990, something people in Russia often do not.
And she noted that all these events did have a foreign dimension, even if there were no foreign conspiracies. “A week after the events in Vilnius” – a reference to the Soviet killings at the television tower there on January 13, 1991 – “the presidents of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland” assembled “and “demanded the immediate liquidation of the Warsaw Pact.”
That too played a role, the Academy of Sciences expert insisted, in what happened later, although this foreign dimension at that time is often ignored, just as have been other linkages between what was taking place inside the Soviet Union and what was occurring in other parts of the world.
And finally, Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Moscow, Polad Bulbul-ogly, pointed to what he called “the enormous error of the political leadership of the Soviet Union which decided to punish an entire people” by sending in military force as it did in Baku on January 19, 1990, an event that was a breaking point for many (
Even now, he said, “it is important to draw serious lessons” from what happened then “because today within Russia is the North Caucasus,” which has “peoples with their own mentality and way of life.” Unfortunately, the diplomat said, “even now sometimes this situation is not considered,” something that in the future could lead to “unexpected consequences.”
According to Abdulatipov, a specialist on federalism, the collapse of the USSR showed the bankruptcy of Soviet nationality policy on Russian Federalism, and “the situation in the Caucasus [today] already shows the miscalculations of the new powers that be” in dealing with ethnic challenges.
The reason for that, he told “Soyuznoye veche,” the magazine of Russian-Belarusian unity, is that “after the disintegration of the USSR what was renewed was not so much a Russian psychology but a Muscovite psychology,” one that has driven those it affected to try to reestablish “the destroyed empire.”
A major reason for that, he continues, is that the Russian people suffered more than other peoples in the Soviet past, and they developed negative attitudes not only to other peoples but to each other, something that they have had to try to deal with over the last two decades but have not yet overcome.
But their relations with other peoples have not gotten better, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the Caucasus where “contemporary [Russian] politicians do not want to understand that [that region] is another world,” far more complicated than their own and one that attempting to apply a common approach to inevitably leads to explosions.
Some Russians have learned that, the ambassador said, but many have not. And if that situation does not change, if Moscow does not develop its policies on the basis of respect for these differences, then each of these peoples “will find their own Saakashvili” and go their own way toward full independence.

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