By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PE] Journal Pioneer
It’s been almost two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of 15 new sovereign entities. Yet the boundaries of the Soviet Union’s successor states seem especially unnatural. Like most state borders, they are not coterminous with the nations that claim them and so make little geographic or ethnic sense.
As befitted the boundaries of administrative units, republican borders, as well as the very status of some of the republics, were subject to over two hundred alterations between 1921 and 1980.
Yet territorial changes are not an issue. Estonians refuse to consider the possibility that it might be a more efficient and secure nation-state without the Russian north-east.
Ukrainian elites won’t leave their eastern provinces in the Donbas, home to a large portion of Ukraine's ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking population.
Abandoning the Crimea, the autonomous peninsula now annexed by Moscow, is considered even less of an option by Kyiv.
Irredentism, however – the desire to incorporate into the new states areas deemed to be their rightful territory – flourishes in the former USSR.
Some Estonians demand that Russia cede territory granted to Estonia by the 1920 Treaty of Tartu that created an independent Estonian nation.
Some Lithuanian nationalists claim Kaliningrad province, currently Russian and formerly Prussian, as historically theirs; Armenians have declared and established by force of arms a mini-state in Karabakh; and Tajiks point to parts of Uzbekistan.
Soviet republics were both administrative units and ideologically sanctioned national homelands that provided non-Russian communist elites with power-bases and legitimacy during the USSR's existence and, even more so, at the time of its disintegration in the late 1980s.
Endowed with flags, hymns, constitutions, capital cities, and other symbolic accoutrements of sovereignty the republics stood at the top of the USSR’s homeland pyramid.
Communist ideology emphasized that all of the Soviet nationalities had found fulfilment and liberation in the Soviet motherland. The so-called national question had been solved by the Communist Party, which enabled the non-Russian nations to attain both national sovereignty and international harmony through the republics.
Non-Russian elites developed a cult of statehood that, in the absence of functioning states, boiled down to a glorification of their former status as symbolically sovereign republics and, hence, to a reification of the former republican borders that gave their polities coherence.
When Soviet power began to disintegrate in the mid to-late 1980s, Soviet-base legitimacy proved increasingly undesirable, and republican elites wrapped themselves in the cloaks of national symbolism.
The non-Russian republics emerged from Soviet collapse without genuine state apparatuses, civil societies, markets, democracy and rule of law, genuinely autonomous cultures and, hence, without mass modern national identities.
They were almost purely creatures of a legacy of Soviet nationalities policies.
The most pressing issue facing the non-Russian elites was state-building. But the institutional poverty of many of the non-Russian states precluded the development of genuine democratic institutions.
So the field was open for groupings of powerholders to seize control of the emerging polities. They grabbed economic assets and forged alliances with political bosses and regional clans.
All that post-Soviet statehood could accomplish was a reification of the boundaries that alone gave the new states political meaning, something especially true in the central Asian republics.