Vienna, April 27 – Although many in Moscow and the West continue to refer to the former Soviet republics as Russia’s “near abroad,” a Moscow State University expert has found that Russians now prefer to use the term “post-Soviet space,” their adoption of a term which was first proposed by a Lithuanian writer 17 years ago.
In an essay on “the dominating role of the Russian Federation in the post-Soviet space,” Aleksey Vlasov says that among the several competing designations for the area that used to be occupied by the USSR, “post-Soviet space” is now more widely used than “near abroad,” according to the Yandex search engine (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/4446/).
According to Vlasov, who writes frequently on relations between the Russian Federation and the other former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic states, a recent Yandex search found that three million Internet pages made reference to “the post-Soviet space,” a million more than mentioned “the countries of the near abroad.”
Because the terminology in which an issue is discussed often determines the way in which it is considered, Vlasov’s exploration of the terms used to describe this part of the world is important as an indication of the extent to which Russian writers, in contrast to some Western ones, have overcome the Soviet inheritance.
The two terms, “near abroad” and “post-Soviet space” have been competing in the Russian lexicon since the disintegration of the USSR. Moscow’s “Izvestiya” used the former term on January 15, 1992, and the late Algis Prazauskas used the latter in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” on February 7th of that year in discussing “the CIS as a post-colonial space.”
Some Russians view these terms as providing a justification for Moscow insisting upon a recognition by all of its special if not indeed exclusive role across the region, and some but far from all Western officials oppose using either term lest it appear to represent a recognition by their governments of just such a Russian “right.”
As British Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it, “Ukraine, Georgia and the others are not ‘a post-Soviet space.’ These are independent sovereign countries which have their own right to territorial integrity.” Consequently, using terms that suggest otherwise is or at least should be “unacceptable.”
In reporting that comment, Vlasov suggests that there is an additional reason why the use of these terms is so sensitive: “In the final analysis,” he says, “the question about the future of the post-Soviet space is a question about the future of Russia itself,” because Moscow wants to retain influence while the former republics want to act independently.
But the problem is even deeper than that, he insists, citing the Moscow commentator Andrey Yermolayev who has argued that “the Soviet Union was not simply a state formation but a state-civilization formation. The remains of that common civilization are not in a position to separate or isolate themselves one from another in the short term.”
Sometimes, Vlasov argues, they attempt to do so but in many cases, they are simply renaming what remains in common. Thus, for example, he points to the proposals of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to promote Eurasianism, which the Moscow commentator argues is simply another term for significant parts of the earlier common civilization.
At the same time, however, Vlasov acknowledges that “the contours of the future” of this region have not yet “been marked out to the end.” Some portions of it are indeed moving off, but “in full correspondence with the laws of the dialectic, [this region] is including in itself new special objects, which were never part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.”
That tendency, he continues, is especially evident if one examines such “integration projects on the post-Soviet space as, for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, one of the creators of which is China which also has its own special interests in the republics of the former Soviet Union.”
But despite “all the contradictions,” Vlasov argues, there are two certainties. On the one hand, the active involvement of “foreign forces” in the CIS countries will lead “not to good but to harm.” And on the other, only Russia can be “the nucleus for the development of modernized processes in the political, economic and social sphere.”
At the same time, however, the Moscow commentator says, “the dominating role of Russia on the post-Soviet space to a large extent is still a foundation of the past and not an achievement of the present. An adequate response to the new challenges of the times, something completely possible, requires from Russia” a great deal.
It requires a more carefully worked out and “at the same time more decisive policy [by Russia] toward its neighbors,” but at the same time, Vlasov argues, this policy must be “responsible,” lest in its efforts to promote unity, Moscow finds itself taking steps that have the effect of driving away others in this region.