Soviet Successor States Search for a New Order

The Commonwealth of Independent States was launched by Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus after Ukraine's December 1991 independence referendum, and joined by Kazakhstan and others. This attempt to establish a successor authority may be doomed. The irreconcilable hopes and fears that first spawned and now threaten the Commonwealth defy both management and reason.

By C.G. Jacobsen | 1992-05-01 12:00:00

The August Coup

The August coup of the Party and military-industrial apparat quickly crumbled.1 Boris Yeltsin astride a tank, haranguing the crowd: the image evoked 1917, but this time the banner of revolt was the old red, blue, and white-the colors of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarussia!

Yet the protest in the streets, marvellous though it was, was not the plotters' undoing. Numbers in Moscow were "some tens of thousands"; in Leningrad 120,000 took to the streets.

More importantly: the Moscow Omon (special forces internal security Units) defected to Yeltsin; the KGB's elite Alpha force refused to participate; as did the Strategic Rocket Troops, the Air Force (its commander threatened to bomb the Kremlin), the Navy, and after some hesitation, the Army.

The plotters broke the first rule of Muscovy authority: revolts must be put down with troops from elsewhere-never from the same ethnic stock or locality. They also shrank from attacks on those who might rally opposition.

Perhaps they were indeed persuaded of the legality of their action.

In any case, the coup's disintegration immediately led to the second coup, played out on TV after Gorbachev's return. Yeltsin interrupted, contradicted, and corrected Gorbachev: he compelled his reading of the plotters' minutes; banned publications that had supported or accepted the coup; and suspended and expropriated the Communist Party, even as Gorbachev pleaded that its members should not all be tarred by the same brush. Finally,Yeltsin dictated the composition of the new central government.2

Gorbachev's impotence was soon confirmed. The Baltics declared their independence, as did Russia, Ukraine, and others. "Autonomous" regions declared themselves independent of the Republics; ethnic enclaves and cities followed suit.3 Some of the assertive nationalisms were benign. But others were malign, exclusive, asserting rights denied to others.4

Galloping nationalism severed economic ties, fuelling unemployment and inflation.5 Old industries withered, new ones faltered. By November there were 20 million unemployed, not counting working unpaid; 80% were women.6 January's inauguration of laissez-faire prices and regulatory reforms jolted all of these figures upwards, bolstering the arguments of those who espoused order: any order.7

Virulent nationalism also severed military ties, threatening nuclear as well as economic anarchy. Ukraine and Kazakhstan fudged pledges to be nuclear-free; their missiles would rank them third and fourth in the world. Azerbaidzhan annexed Soviet forces on its soil; de jure, Azerbaidzhan may be a nuclear power. Others followed. When Yeltsin voided the elections and independence of tiny Chechen-Ingush (neighboring Georgia), its president and parliament declared a "state of war." Russia's parliament stayed Yeltsin's hand, fearing the implications of an interventionist precedent, and troops were withdrawn. Bloodshed was averted, but the problem worsened.

Rampant Nationalism

The independence of the Baltic states appeared to be a moral imperative: the Hitler-Stalin pact that gave them to Moscow was "illegal"; the ruthlessness of Sovietization was abhorrent. But what was recognized? In the case of Lithuania, was it the "nation" designed by Stalin, or was it the Lithuania of 1939-smaller, and without Vilnius, today's capital? To Poles, Vilnius is Wilno, the birthplace of Poland's greatest poets. Belarussia also lost lands to the new Republic.

The horrors of Sovietization are undeniable. Yet the region's history reads like Palestine's, where the horrors of one are matched by earlier horrors of the other. Baltic independence from Russia was brought by German and British armies. This region, with Finland (where German troops also decided the ensuing struggle), was Bolsheviki heartland. The rights of recent Russian settlers are queried; few remember older Russian settler communities, expelled while German arms held sway.8

Poles also remember Lvov and Galicia, the heartland of Ukrainian independence movements, as Polish. Russians make up a quarter of Ukraine's population, and they value their ties to Moscow. So does the Russian population of Crimea-which Moscow gave to Sovietized Ukraine. Crimean Tartars, expelled by Stalin, but now returning, feel neither Ukrainian nor Russian.

All non-Slavic Republics have Russian, Ukrainian and White Russian minorities; in Kazakhstan they are the majority.9 All also contain other minorities, many with deep roots, and some that are truly aboriginal.

Each Republic, including Russia, has felt alienated from the centre. As in Quebec, this spawned dreams of Nationhood. All except Russia have long-established settler communities, like the English of Quebec, whose privileges stoked fires of separatism. All, including Russia, also have analogues of Quebec's aboriginal Nations.

The Russians of Moldova, the Ossetians of Georgia, the Tartars of Russia and a slew of other "nations," with ethnically distinct "Autonomous" Republics, regions and districts, declared independence. Here democratic ideals echo older ones of Novgorod; of Cossacks; and the Soviets of 1905 and 1917. As in the peasant commune, they emphasize the collective as well as the self, and duties as well as rights. However, such communal ideals in the past always fell victim to harsher reality, as in Tsarist Russia, the Baltics of the '205 and '305, or the USSR.

The government that proclaimed Uzbekistan independent is the same that hailed the coup. Georgia's Gamsakhurdia government embraced a racial exclusivity that echoed Nazism. Russia's Pamyat and Azerbaidzhan's religious zealots advocate pogroms. Lithuania's government concedes no minority rights.'

The Russian Empire and Soviet Union were not like most empires. The scale, numbers and mix of the Russian Soviet settler mosaic is of an altogether different order.11 The only true analogue is the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose mosaic persists and still threatens the cohesion of successor states. Indeed, many believe a successor confederacy may be their only hope of stability.

The danger is not that Poland will attempt to seize territory, but that inter-communal strife will generate different regimes. The danger is Yugoslavia writ large.

Democratic Moscow may not be able to sustain a unifying structure. There is little evidence that Japan, the U.S., Canada and others are willing or able to shoulder the required aid efforts. And history is as unkind to failed democracy as it is to failed autocracy.

Economic Imperatives

Post-coup economic imperatives appeared to dictate agreement to form at least a Common Market type union. Nearly 80% of the economy of the former USSR was trans-Republic; assemblers of final products depended on components from other Republics. Russia was the least dependent, yet, for it also, disruption of old ties is costly."

But nationalism and pride demanded other solutions. The Baltic states, Ukraine and Belarussia dreamed of entry into the Common Market. The Ukraine, traditional bread-basket of the Russia, saw itself feeding the world. Russia envisioned prospects of hard currency income from exporting energy and raw materials. Better yet, this currency need no longer subsidize other republics.

In October the Ukraine announced plans to establish an army larger than Germany's. Most early dreams proved illusory. Advocates of EEC expansion were more interested in union with European Free Trade Association countries. Protectionism thwarted East/Central European hopes. The European Community's protectionist Common Agricultural Policy remained sacrosanct. Independence advocates assumed that world price exports would pay for necessary imports. Yet even the Baltics lack the resources to compete with Scandinavia on the world market.

Ukraine's agricultural aspirations are the most difficult to realize. She cannot match the subsidies afforded by the European Community, the USA and Canada; nor can she match the technology and productivity of her rivals. Industrious farmers, good soil and low wages are not sufficient. Moreover, Ukraine's industries show scant prospect of becoming competitive.

Some Republics hoped mutual dependence might be parleyed into bilateral deals. Georgia, for example, assumed that Russia would still need its petrochemical processing facilities, but Russia had longer-term alternatives; Georgia's looked more dubious.

In October Yeltsin declared that Russia would proceed with its own reforms. This induced Ukraine to join a tentative economic union, but continuing opposition in Kiev and other capitals indicated that economic logic can be overcome by the dictates of nationalist passion.

The Commonwealth announcement in December had confirmed the need for economic association, but the continuing discord culminated in Kiev's apparently final withdrawal from economic cooperation in March, 1992. This ended the economic grounds for its existence.

Military-Strategic Imperatives

The Inter-Republic negotiations on a new security order began in Moscow in September. Some saw the assertiveness of Kiev, Alma Ala and other capitals as a tactical ploy in the negotiations toward a successor authority. Strategic reality and the Republics' fiscal inability to sustain separate forces appeared to dictate a compromise: the centre would retain control of Strategic Troops, the Air Force, Navy, and a shrunken Army, while the Republics would field National Militias and Border Guards. But here also logic was overcome by the passions of nationalism.

In October the Ukraine announced its intention to establish an army larger than Germany's, nearly half million strong; the Ukraine and Kazakhstan asserted authority over missiles on their territory; Azerbaidzhan threatened force against Soviet forces circumventing its jurisdiction. By March 1992 Azerbaidzhan and others were also proceeding to establish their own, distinct armies, as were a number of secessionist enclaves, such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Gagauz (in Moldova).

Strategic Rocket Troop formations were restricted to Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, but tactical nuclear munitions were still present in most former Republics. Central control remained secure, but there was increasing concern.13 The spectre of proliferation was perhaps more a negotiating chip than considered policy.

Political Imperatives

After the coup, Yeltsin commented that Republics had the right to independence, but borders might be redrawn. This threat was withdrawn, but the withdrawal rested on the dubious premise that Ukraine would subscribe to a new association.

Nationalist passions made it dangerous for a politician to concede anything to any central authority, yet it seemed to be important to democratic nationalists to preserve a centre that included more than Russia. This would make it possible to restrain Russia's old ambitions, again on the ascendant.

Democrats were becoming perturbed. by chauvinism in some of Yeltsin's speeches, by the peremptory nature of his edicts, and by his appointment of prefects authorized to override local governments. Some prominent spokesmen among the democrats tried to leaven Yeltsin's more intemperate initiatives. Others who had previously rallied to him turned again to support Gorbachev's final struggle to maintain a centre.

By November, however, despite Kiev's adoption of the economic union treaty, Russian nationalism was gaining ground. The nationalists who supported independence for the non-Russian republics split more openly in two, with the democrats abandoning Yeltsin, and the others forming a separate faction. In their parliaments, these latter nationalists supported Yeltsin and championed the cause of a dominant Russia that would protect the rights of Russians in the Baltics and other republics.

The Commonwealth

The Commonwealth of Independent States agreement, signed by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and joined by Kazakhstan and others, accepted the principles of an economic common market and unified strategic command-but without the concomitant of all-Union authority. Gorbachev's insistence on minimally enfranchised central authority was ignored. Yeltsin decrees transferred all-Union authority, ministries, agencies, and finance to Russia, seized the Kremlin, and anointed Russia the successor state. By Christmas, Gorbachev's resignation was a formality. His authority had been usurped, as surely as Kerensky's in 1917.

Yet, as the Commonwealth took formal effect, on 1 January 1992, its implementation remained mired in contradictions and dangerous uncertainty. There was no agreement on monetary matters, trade, tariffs, or other "common" policy domains.

The meaning of central strategic command was equally uncertain. Ukrainian President Kravchuk announced joint fingers on the button; Russian President Yeltsin announced one; Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev declared that as long as there was a Russian, there would also be a Kazakh finger. Kravchuk spoke of non-nuclear Ukraine, but his timetable varied. He claimed the Black Sea Fleet, but was denied by its Commander, and Yeltsin. Central command is effectively Russian, yet outside Russia its implementation is subject to doubt, discord, and worse.

The Commonwealth is as fragile and vulnerable at birth as were Lenin's dreams of November 1917. It has unleashed forces that threaten to devour it. One can only hope that this baby proves stronger. Unfortunately, the signs so far are not good.

C.G. Jacobsen is the Director of the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University.


1. Echo, (Moscow Radio), 21 August 1991.

2. Russiskaya Gazetna, Moscow, 23 and 24 August.

3. See e.g "Soviet autonomous republics, wheels within wheels", "Flight from the Kremlin", "Georgia, first things second", "Soviet Central Asia, the next Islamic revolution," and "Uzbekistan, drifting toward danger," in the Economist, 15 July, 31 August, 21 September, and 9 November 1991; and the [Toronto] Globe and Mail 23 October l99l.

4. C.G. Jacobsen, "On the search for a new world security order: 'the inviolability of borders'; prescription for peace-or war?", European Security, forthcoming (first issue, early 1992).

5. Some Academy of Sciences institutes received their last pay-checks in September; most of the others in October. In November Russia withdrew funding from most central government Ministries and agencies. On inflation, see "Soviets on the Brink Of Soaring Inflation," The Guardian Weekly 6 October 1991 (from The Washington Post).

6. CBC The Journal, 6 November 1991.

7. See e.g. "Russian privatisation, Blast off or flop", The Economist, 15 Feb.1992, pp 85-86; and "Stealing toward a Russian capitalism", Sunday Review, The New Tork Times, 8 March 1992.

8. The best history of 1917 and immediate post-1917 reality is N.N. Sukhanov's The Russian Revolution 1917, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

9. The Russian population alone, at well over 40 percent, constitutes the single largest ethnic group; the Kazakh population is 36 percent

10. The horror of Omon (internal security troops) killings in January 1991 was perhaps in post fuelled by sanctioned or tolerated SS reunions in Vilnius the previous week; after the Moscow coup Lithuania pardoned all former war criminals, ostensibly because they had been convicted in Soviet courts-and notwithstanding the fact that much of the evidence against them was provided by Western governments. See Sovinform Hypermedia on-disk release, Soviet Military Secrets #1: 1989-1991: Transformation and Transition, Carleton University, Soviet National Security ORU, 1991. See also Mikhail Gorbachev, The August Coup: the Truth and the Lessons, New York: Harper Collins, 1991, p.68.

11. See Rasnis Karkiins, Ethnic Relations in the USSR, Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986; also Nicholas V. Riassnovaky's A History of Russia; London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1%3. For a current accou t of the nationalities quagmire and its impact on security perceptions and parameters during the "Times of Trouble", see M. Feshbach and S. Dorman, "Demography, Nationality and Soviet Military Recruitment Problems," in Proceedings of the Third Bedford Colloquium on Soviet Military-Political Affairs forthcoming, 1992 (from the Russian Research Centre of Nova Scotia).

12. Inter-Republic trade subsidization and dependence, comparative statistics, are provided by Jonathan Steele, in "Fear and Folly in Moscow," Guardian Weekly, 1 March 1992.

13. "The August Coup," op cit; Gorbachev assures readers of continued central authority, yet he is clearly haunted by the fear that this may not be immutable. See also this author's review essay, "Gorbachev's Testament", in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1992.

14. See eg "CIS: the first two months" in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol 1, No.8, 21 February 1992.

15. On 12 March 1992 he stopped the previously agreed-upon transfer to Russia of tactical warheads. About 57% had been transferred; the 43% remaining on the territory of the former Republic may or may not be representative of the situation elsewhere.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1992

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