To start off, independence brought different things to different republics. The Baltic countries became EU and NATO members and their future is now linked with European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. In Central Asia, the former Soviet republics each have a very different status. Some of them, like Kazakhstan, have managed to score impressive results in economic development, build modern multiethnic states and define their niche in the world. Others, like Kyrgyzstan, are only now building a national state, which is why they are constantly shaken by revolutions and conflicts. States like Ukraine or Moldova are wedged in between Russia and Europe, trying to define their geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic priorities.
But they all have one important thing in common. All these countries have grown from Soviet republics into internationally recognized states with a voice in international bodies. The 20 years that have passed since the Soviet Union’s collapse have shown that they are capable of developing and strengthening their independence and economy, as well as integrating into global and regional processes.
In short, this 20-year period has been sufficient in terms of allowing all the former Soviet republics to survive and gain new strength. They have established themselves and fitted themselves into the world scheme of things.
Russia’s story is completely different. Its role, position and place in the world set it cardinally apart from the other former Soviet republics. The Russian Federation, if not a master nation in the full meaning of the word, at least provided the historical core for a state that during different periods of its existence was called either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. So, the key issue for Russia was not to gain independence from the Soviet Union, but rather to sum up the 300 years of its imperial existence and enter a new period – to shape a large multinational state.
Russia has ceased to be an empire (a neutral term with no negative connotations). It is now seeking to assert itself and find its place in the world order as a modern great power. In this case, the term “great power” means the ability to take independent decisions at all levels, including strategic. This kind of independence is the hallmark of Russia, as it sets it aside from many other world states. In international terms, the transition from an empire to a great power is the be-all and end-all for Russia. For the countries that have severed links with Russia, the overriding objective is different – to form independent states, integrate into other regional and international agencies, and look for new relations with Russia and other countries.
Soviet collapse: A disaster survived
In appraising an event like the Soviet Union’s collapse, it is very important to note that the Russian people and society put an end to the Communist system themselves, without outside help or advice. The Communist system has left a disastrous legacy, above all, in human terms. Of course, it is impossible to sum up in a nutshell the nearly three-quarters of a century of Communist rule in Russia, as the regime constantly changed, and its phases differed from each other greatly.
If anything, it was a period of non-freedom for Russia. Now, Russia has the chance to develop along modern technological and social lines, and in the future, on a modern political basis. It is my hope that Russia will occupy a fitting place in the world balance of forces in this way. Most importantly, I hope that this will enable the Russians to develop in an environment free of risks to life and freedom. Here lies the fundamental difference between the post-1991 period, a period of freedom, and the Soviet period, a period of non-freedom. Freedom does not mean some exclusively economic or other material benefits. Freedom is above all the possibility to make independent decisions and stand up for them.
The Soviet Union’s collapse was a geopolitical disaster. That is stating the obvious. The dialectics, as they used to say, was that the empire collapsed together with the Communist system to produce freedom. Of course, there is no good in seeing human ties ruined or the once common space swamped in frontier posts. Even so, it becomes clear that the ouster of the Communist regime made inevitable the Soviet Union’s meltdown.
Both Russia and the other former Soviet republics have managed to live through this catastrophe. It is a fact that those who now live in Russia or the other post-Soviet states have much more to show now than 20 years ago. There is no doubting that the Soviet collapse also had bad spots. The process took its toll on conflict-ridden areas where civil wars erupted. This geopolitical disaster also led to economic losses and left a host of social and humanitarian problems. Still, it was the best soft option for the newest global empire to shed its imperial trappings.
In summing up, it should be noted that most of these problems have already been solved. Presently, all citizens in Russia and the other post-Soviet countries are free to develop as they see fit. This has become possible because – and I would like to stress it once more – they found their own path out of the very tricky situation into which the Communist rulers had plunged the peoples of the former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
Dmitry Trenin is the director and chairman of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Scientific Council