15 November 2022Georgia

A no-name space

What unites the countries of the former USSR: The view from Georgia

by Zaal Andronikashvili
Archil Kikodze. The Crossing© Archil Kikodze


Georgia section is edited by the literary scholar and publicist Zaal Andronikashvili. We offer to our readers his opening column.

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1. A shift in perspective

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is undergoing a significant transformation. These days, not only is Ukraine reshaping the future of Europe, but also changing the perception of its past. The political landmarks that seemed to be unshakable are displaced and the Western European attitudes towards the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe in general are starting to change.

Just a few weeks ago, the Eastern policy of Germany shifted from exclusive focus on Russia to a greater interest in other countries of the former USSR. The “post-Soviet” space is not perceived anymore as a merely peripheral, borderline territory between the EU and Russia. Quite recently it was possible to negotiate the fates of the countries located here without asking the opinion of these countries themselves. It is largely the fight and sacrifice of the Ukrainians that enabled these countries to gain visibility, which they had been deprived of before.

A few historical layers are coming into motion at once. Since the 17th-18th centuries, the European and world order has been mainly designed by European superpowers, while small and medium-sized countries, such as Georgia and Poland, have been disappearing from political maps. This process is coming to an end, along with the Soviet Union’s disintegration, which has dragged on for over thirty years. Among other things, it involves the emancipation of the countries, peoples, and cultures of the former Russian Empire. Today, a window of opportunity is opening for a new, democratic Europe, with equal rights and without any division into superpowers and satellite countries.

It is impossible to interpret this process from a single point of view. Different perspectives should be taken into account, especially those of the former republics of the Soviet Union. Very little is known about these countries, about their histories and cultures, in Western Europe, as well as in the rest of the world. They are commonly perceived as countries that were formed after the collapse of the USSR, while their pre-Soviet history and culture end up virtually crossed out or ignored. For years, the USSR was associated with Russia and the inhabitants of the Soviet Union were indiscriminately labeled as “Russians.” I still happen to be asked if Georgia has its own language, if it is similar to Russian, if we use the Cyrillic alphabet, and so forth. It is still news to many that Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova have their own languages (and some of them also have scripts and literacy), their own history, literature, culture, their own political interests and preferences.

Little more is known about these countries in Russia, the former imperial and Soviet metropolis, where knowledge often served the political goal of supremacy. What is particularly discouraging is that, due to the preference for vertical relationships with the all-Union center at the expense of horizontal ties between the republics, the countries of the former USSR themselves did not know too much about each other. At least until now, they showed more interest in the imperial or European political and cultural centers than in each other.

In Europe, there were virtually no research centers with focus on the countries of the former USSR. Literature, scholarship, and journalism of those countries were scarcely translated, if at all, into European languages. The information about the post-Soviet countries was drawn from outside sources and perspectives – often from unfriendly political centers – this way further establishing their peripheral political and cultural status. Without any knowledge of the national languages (and not even realizing the need for this knowledge), it was taken for granted that the information received via a different language would be sufficient to learn everything about such different countries as, for instance, Tajikistan and Moldova. Given the downsizing number of foreign correspondents across European media, it would be unrealistic to expect that they would be able to speak Armenian or Moldovan. But projects like ours are able to fill, albeit partially, this enormous gap in first-hand information.

The concept of the “post-Soviet space,” quite disputable as such, appears especially controversial in terms of history and geography. Up to the present time, the framework of description has been provided by the imperial centers. The time has come today to shift perspective and to work out a frame of reference that would represent the countries of the former USSR.

2. History

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is often called an imperialist war and Putin's policies in the post-Soviet space and beyond, neo-imperialism. This kind of labeling, however, is confusing, rather than illuminating, although it totally makes sense rhetorically. The underlying narrative behind this rhetoric implies that Russia is striving to regain control of the territories that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This narrative basically supports the identification of Russia with the Soviet Union. The deeply controversial nature of this concept may be illustrated by the German foreign policy: for many years, it upheld the idea of a particular historical responsibility towards Russia in the aftermath of the World War II, while completely ignoring the same particular responsibility towards the countries of the former USSR, especially Ukraine.

The representation of today's Russia as an empire draws attention to its foreign policies of power without taking into account the dramatically disruptive nature of its domestic policies.

In my opinion, Russia’s war in Ukraine carries on a whole sequence of wars that have not stopped since the late 1980s, but have not ever been discussed or noticed, or have simply been forgotten by Western Europe. To name some of them: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (between Armenia and Azerbaijan), the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), the Transnistria conflict (Moldova), the first and second Chechen wars (Russian Federation), the “color revolutions” in various post-Soviet countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan), the Russian-Georgian war, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the war in Donbass and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Political scientists use different names to describe these events, from ethnic conflicts to revolutions. I believe that all of these events, however, manifest the general ongoing process: the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This process was not peaceful (as was previously assumed), and it is still far from completion. From its end, the collapse of the Soviet Union has two aspects: the internal one and the external one. Both are inextricably intertwined, given that foreign policy can be seen as a reflection and extension of domestic policy.

In terms of foreign policy, over the thirty years after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the states of the former Warsaw Pact, along with the Baltic countries, have become part of the new EU order, while the rest of the former Soviet republics are still stuck in limbo. The Eastern Partnership countries have been dwelling in the mode of never-ending expectation since the mid-2000s: the doors to NATO and the EU have remained seemingly open, but it proved to be impossible to enter. On the other hand, Russia, not having found a place for itself in the new world order after the collapse of the USSR, engaged in revanchism: posing a threat to the former “fraternal” republics, it prefers to build relationships with them through war, aggression, and terror since 2008.

In terms of domestic politics, the post-Soviet states are still being transformed from post-totalitarian “façade democracies” into democratic states governed by the rule of law. With the exception of the Baltic countries, the process has not yet been proven successful anywhere. Their power structure is basically inherited from the Soviet Union. To simplify, it can be described as the seizure of the state (including its executive, legislative, and judiciary power, as well as mass-media and economy) by a single-party autocracy that heavily relies upon the state apparatus of violence and can use any ideology seeking to legitimize its usurped power.

As Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are in the process of building legal, democratic states, for them, the successful completion of this process implies integration into the European Union (and NATO). In Belarus and Armenia, the civil societies pursue the same goal, while their governments are either oriented towards Russia (Belarus) or Turkey (Azerbaijan) or upholding a multi-vector foreign policy (Armenia).

The Georgian government, following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, is playing both sides of the fence, trying to improve its relations with Moscow and, therefore, damaging relations with Kyiv. This policy stems directly from the intentional erosion of democracy in Georgia itself over the years under unofficial leadership of the oligarch Ivanishvili. For Russia, any kind of integration into the existing world order is associated with the loss of “sovereign democracy”, which, exactly like the idea of the “Russian world”, is an ideological label to camouflage the post-totalitarian kleptocracy that has taken over the state.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine can be interpreted as a military attempt to cancel the results of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” according to Putin. There are significant differences, however, between the Soviet Union and Putin's Russia. Putin is not interested in the restoration of the USSR (at least not in its progressionist and humanistic claims), but only in keeping the Soviet state power structure. There is no continuity between today’s Russia and the Russian Empire either. The imperial project of Peter the Great was aimed at Russia’s integration into the world, while Putin's Russia is directed towards the political, economic, and cultural sovereignty, essentially towards the autarky of Russia.

These are the reasons why for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, the very possibility of building a democratic, constitutional state is closely related to their emancipation from Russia and integration into the EU and NATO.

3. Geography

Speaking of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, we cannot avoid the problem of space. Since the time of Fernand Braudel, space has been considered a central concept of historical or even cultural-historical studies. If we understand culture as a multilayer entity whose layers change at different pace, the perception and interpretation of space appears to be one of the most change-resistant mechanisms.

The lingering perception of the “post-Soviet” space as imperial, which can be traced back to the 17th century, in fact, has not been called into question so far – neither in Russia, nor in Europe.

The geopolitical transformation of Russia into a European-style empire (1721) required, among other things, geographical evidence to justify the division of Russia into a European metropolis and a non-European colonial periphery. Unlike the European superpowers, Russia was not separated from its colonies by a clearly defined border. The geographic expeditions called upon in response to this challenge were supposed to scientifically determine the border between Europe and Asia on the territory of Russia. Russian historian Vasily Tatishchev (1686–1750) and Swedish geographer Philipp-Johann von Strahlenberg (1676–1747) established the Ural Mountains as the eastern border of Europe, which was later extended from the southern Urals through the Caucasus up to the Azov and Black Seas. As geographer Mark Bassin states, Russian imperial ideology is generally based on the geographical hypothesis that Russia can be clearly and naturally divided into the European and Asian parts.

The perception of the Caucasus as an “Asian” periphery of Russia has proven to be rooted so deeply that books, articles, and TV programs circulating in today’s Germany still represent Georgia as a country of the “wild Caucasus.” Recently, however, in addition to the Caucasian geographical index, Georgia has also received the Black Sea Basin or Eastern European geographical placement. Along with Ukraine and Moldova, the country is considered to be a possible candidate for the EU. These are the indications of the slow, but steady changes in common political and cultural-geographical perceptions.

At the same time, the notion of "Eastern Europe" itself is not indisputable. On the one hand, the concept refers to the countries of the former Eastern Bloc; on the other, it further supports the division of Europe into two unequal parts. Russian aggression came about at a horrible and heavy price, as evidence that the cultural division between Western and Eastern Europe is not just a political, but also a mental-geographical atavism of the imperial mindset that was inherited from the 18th-19th centuries.

In his book Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, American historian Larry Wolf discusses the mechanism of the Western European cultural imperialism and demonstrates the ways in which it helps to represent Eastern Europe as retrograde and uncivilized. Many of the cultural mechanisms, stereotypes, and prejudices described by Wolf are still active even with reference to the more successful Eastern European countries, current members of the EU and NATO, even more so in relation to the countries of the former USSR.

These prejudices not only reflected the “mental geography” of inequality, but further sanctioned it. Political jargon labeled the countries “between” the EU and Russia as a sanitary cordon (cordon sanitaire). They appeared to be no man’s land, Terra nullius of a sort: a territory that fell off the USSR, but never became “European” (back then, still without any prospects for becoming part of the EU). These countries, albeit recognized as independent states politically, were still perceived as part of Russia in a cultural sense.

The very notion of the “post-Soviet space” objectivizes it, represents it as passive and devoid of agency. The future of this "space" is contingent not only on the former post-Soviet countries’ political development, but also on the changes in cultural attitudes towards them. To carry out these changes, it is necessary to destroy the cultural mechanisms that have successfully been in use for several hundred years.

The blank spot on the map of Europe is gradually filling in. Translations from Ukrainian, Georgian, and Belarusian are being published. Western Europeans are starting to learn that those "in-between" countries are not just sources of permanent tension or hotbeds of revolutions and conflicts; not just countries that need to be taken by the hand and taught a lesson about democracy, or human rights, or market economy, but rather countries with a vibrant, modern culture, who are perfectly able to contribute into politics, science, military defense, and culture (including European democratic culture).

4. The future of the no-name space

The countries of the former USSR are very different from each other. When labeling the space they are united by as “post-Soviet,” we define it through the past. In this framework, the post-Soviet space is a provisional space that will cease being post-Soviet once the processes binding it with the Soviet Union terminate. For the future, this "space" still has no name. What unifies this space, besides a common history?

Today it is still impossible to tell the future of the countries of the former USSR, but we can try to outline the likely prospects of their development. Each of the post-Soviet countries naturally gravitates towards a certain center: the EU, Turkey, China, or Russia. Each of them will keep building relationships with regional or world superpowers. There is still a possibility for them, however, to create their own interstate network.

Despite the unresolved conflicts still present in the "post-Soviet" space, there emerge new opportunities for cooperation in pursuit of a new community. It turned out that the countries of the former USSR not only have a common past, but also a common present – and probably a common future. This future can particularly focus on their common efforts toward emancipation from the imperial legacy and from the violence-based model of political power inherited from the Soviet Union.

Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovans, Armenians, Belarusians have proven that the aspiration for freedom and democracy and people’s endeavor to regain the power that the post-Soviet kleptocratic elites have been trying to take away from them was not a lesson learned on account of the European and American grants, nor was it a mere attempt to become part of the economically prosperous European space. It was a conscious choice and they were ready to sacrifice a lot for it.

The countries of the former USSR, at least some of them, have discovered common political goals. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has seriously clouded the prospects for possible cooperation between Russia and EU in the future. In this situation, the role of the countries of the former USSR is growing. None of the post-Soviet countries alone would be able to replace Russia. Together, however, these countries are able to play a more important role in the areas of politics, economy, security, and culture. To achieve this, they should look for new ways of cooperation – not via the former imperial and Soviet centers, but by direct interaction with each other.

The building of new connections, especially among the conflicting countries, takes place not only at the state level and in the political area, but also in the cultural domain. The countries of the former USSR are discovering each other anew. The festivals of literature, cinema, and contemporary art show their genuine interest in each other, which has nothing in common with the official Soviet doctrine of "peoples’ friendship." So far, these countries have used an intermediary language for communication, with English increasingly gaining its positions and Russian increasingly losing, but in the emerging polyphony, the importance of other languages is also growing.

Despite their differences in territory and population size, in economic and cultural capacities, despite the absence of a dominant language and the presence of imperial memory, their horizontal relations may evolve into a new characteristic quality of the transformed post-Soviet space. A new window of opportunity is opening. Cooperation makes the countries of the former USSR more stable and secure, not only in the face of Russian aggression, but also in front of larger regional states and coalitions. An inquiry into these connections and commonalities will constitute the second important objective of our project.

Translated from Russian by Kun

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