The empire strikes back

Both Boris Yeltsin and his Communist rivals have expansion on their minds, writes Geoffrey Hosking
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When the Soviet Union fell apart nearly five years ago its disintegration was much more complete than Boris Yeltsin anticipated. As a result, some 25 million Russians found themselves inhabitants of foreign countries, some of them without citizens' rights or suffering violence from vengeful neighbours. Roughly 2 million of them have since decided to leave and seek shelter in their "homeland", the Russian Federation, which already has a desperate housing shortage and growing unemployment, and is therefore not especially keen to take them in.

Even Russians inside the Russian Federation have suffered. Imagine having to go through customs and passport control to visit an elderly mother in Cardiff or Glasgow, and you will understand why many of them resent the dissolution of the USSR.

This is the main reason why it has been difficult for Russia to renounce the heritage of empire and become a nation-state among other nation-states. Most Russians still carry around a mental map of the Soviet Union in their heads. "Russian imperialists" are people like you and me, who want to visit their elderly mothers, Yeltsin began his career by trying to make Russia a nation-state, but he has found himself steadily drifting back towards an imperial posture, most markedly in his violent lurch into Chechnia in December 1994.

In the course of the current election campaign, the Communists have repeatedly played on the theme of the collapse of the Union. Their leader, Gennadii Ziuganov, asserts: "For the first time in their history, the Russian people have become a divided people.... The Fatherland means a community. But people cannot travel to their relatives or friends for weddings or even funerals."

On 17 March, the Communists persuaded the Russian parliament, the Duma, to pass a resolution condemning the Belovezh accords of December 1991, which formally dissolved the Soviet Union and replaced it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The resolution amounts to a statement that the USSR still legally exists.

The Duma's move provoked a wave of protest, both from President Yeltsin and from other ex-Soviet republics. Yeltsin called it "scandalous" and "unconstitutional" and claimed it undermined the legal standing of all Russian institutions, including the Duma itself. One deputy, half in jest, suggested the Duma dissolve itself and immediately reconvene the old USSR Supreme Soviet.

If one disregards the rhetoric for a moment, however, then much of the difference between Yeltsin and the Communists vanishes.To begin with, if the Communists came to power, what would they actually do to restore the Soviet Union? It cannot be recreated by force, certainly not by the Russian army in its present condition. And what can be achieved by diplomacy and persuasion is already being done by the present regime. Yeltsin has explicitly stated that he hopes the ex-Soviet republics will eventually form a "confederation". So, whether he or Ziuganov wins the presidential election in June, Russia will be aiming to strengthen the ties between most of the ex-Soviet republics.

The forum for their cooperation has so far been the CIS, but it has proved far too loose for Russia. Its agreements resemble a long a la carte menu, from which members choose their dishes at will. It has no common citizenship and few of its documents are signed by all member states. By comparison, the European Union seems a model of harmony and consensus.

All the same, some of the republics would actively welcome renewed Russian influence and help. They have found the outside world a less welcoming place than they anticipated. They have discovered that their products are less marketable in the non-Soviet world than they had hoped, so they are quietly resuming some of the old Soviet economic ties, hoping for cheap fuel and raw materials from Russia. Russia is definitely the senior partner in these arrangements, because it commands such huge resources. Symbolically the CIS recently announced that its headquarters would move from Minsk to Moscow.

In the military sense, the CIS is also a very insubstantial alliance. It has no political committee or even a joint command. Most important of all, Ukraine has never become a member. Russia tends to take the main decisions: it has used its military strength to persuade Georgia and Armenia to accept Russian military bases. Many see the CIS security treaty as a thinly disguised instrument of renewed Russian domination. No doubt that is why Ukraine has never joined it.

Dissatisfied with the looseness of the CIS, some ex-Soviet republics are moving to form a kind of inner core. Closest of all are Russia and Belorussia, which are coordinating their defence and foreign policy, and have signed a treaty which stops only just short of full union. Together with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, they have agreed to dismantle customs barriers and to harmonise their economic, military and social policies. Meanwhile Tajikistan continues to depend on the Russian army to defend its borders.

There are good historical reasons for these republics to feel the need of closer relations with Russia. Belorussia has never really felt itself to be a separate nation and Kazakhstan has almost as many Russian citizens as it has Kazakh ones, while Kyrgyzstan is peculiarly dependent on its Russian specialists and professional staffs. Together they seem likely to form a kind of CIS inner core which might actually become a confederation, not unlike the model Gorbachev had in mind when in the last months of 1991 he fought to save the USSR by persuading its members to sign a new union treaty.

The other Central Asian and Caucasian republics feel less close to Russia, and will probably want to preserve a more distinct identity. But they will need strategic backing and strong economic ties with Russia for the foreseeable future, and Russia has shown in the past that it is prepared to exploit these needs to assert its hegemony.

The great stumbling block is Ukraine, where opinion is sharply divided. The population of the western regions would bitterly resist any rapprochement with Russia. The inhabitants of Crimea and the Donbass, on the other hand, would warmly endorse closer relations, and in the long run may prove difficult to govern from Kiev without them. Several million of them are Russian, and even many of those who are described in their passports as Ukrainian nevertheless identify with Russia or the Soviet Union as a whole.

These are the realities that would face either President Yeltsin or President Ziuganov. Their mutual denunciations are actually electoral rhetoric. In reality both are moving towards a quiet but determined reassertion of Russian imperial influence.

The writer is Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Domitilla Sagramoso.