25 years after the official collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of disintegration in the post-Soviet space appear to be stronger than those of integration.

One should not overestimate the significance of common cultural and social ties among the post-Soviet countries: The Soviet generation is passing away, with the new generation thinking differently. Photo: AP

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made headlines in early February during a marathon seven-hour press conference, when he overtly questioned the future of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and implied that Moscow-Minsk relations could no longer be taken for granted.

In fact, he made it clear that the Kremlin won’t be able to impose its will and dominance in order to prevent Belarus from diversifying its list of foreign partners in the West. Moreover, Lukashenko implied that Russia’s oil would not be able to save Minsk’s loyalty to the Kremlin, because “freedom cannot be measured with money” and “we will find a way out anyway.” Such defiance puzzled Moscow, which, according to some experts, seeks to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space (also known as the Near Abroad).  

Although Russia and Belarus alleviated the tensions, Lukashenko’s comments during the marathon press conference indicate that both sides have very different views on their relationship. It might turn out to be one of Minsk’s most significant moves away from Russia. This, in turn, might put into question any attempts at post-Soviet integration, 25 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

‘A patchwork quilt with hybrid regimes’

Today, there is no unanimity within the expert community whether the process of disintegration is still continuing or not. Ostensibly, the Soviet Union ended its existence on Dec. 25, 1991, yet its enduring legacy persists to this day. It has resulted in numerous conflicts in the post-Soviet space, reaching its apex during the military conflict in Ukraine in 2014.

With Russia marking the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, the protracted conflicts in the post-Soviet space are still among the most discussed problems by Russian and foreign experts. In early February, at least two events took place in central Moscow on this topic and coincided with Lukashenko’s defiant comments.

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“Today the post-Soviet space is like a patchwork quilt with hybrid regimes,” said Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov at a Feb. 2 discussion, while pointing out that none of the former Soviet republics can be seen as purely democratic states (except the Baltic States). “Russia is building an imagined empire, yet this empire doesn’t exist anymore.”

According to Kolesnikov, this is one of the reasons why the conflict in Ukraine emerged. Together with a number of unrecognized states in the post-Soviet space, it is a vivid indication that the post-Soviet empire is still in disintegration and this is a painful process both for Russia and its neighbors.

“What we are witnessing today is the protracted breakup of the Soviet Union,” Andrei Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said during the Feb. 9 discussion "The post-Soviet space, 25 year later: the past, the present, the future" in a media center in central Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t end in 1991, it is continuing today, as indicated by the drama in Ukraine, Kortunov added. He pointed out that Moscow failed to reach its two goals — maintaining friendly relations with its neighbors and saving the united economic and cultural post-Soviet space.

In part, it is because some international stakeholders were against the Kremlin’s dominance in the region and supported geopolitical pluralism. In part, it is because some post-Soviet states like Ukraine tried to create their new national identity by putting themselves into overt opposition to Russia. In part, the Kremlin itself made a lot of political mistakes, concluded Kortunov.

Arkady Dubnov, an independent veteran journalist, further develops these ideas. A search for a new national identity together with the Kremlin’s assertive stances and initiatives, its negligent attitude toward Ukraine and other neighbors played a significant role in the ongoing collapse of the post-Soviet space. The disintegration process and the redrawing of the post-Soviet map is “a danger that comes from Moscow,” as indicated by the military conflict in Donbas and Crimea’s annexation, said Dubnov during the Feb. 2 event at the Carnegie Moscow Center. 

‘Sweepingly’ disintegrating integration

Meanwhile, Alexander Iskandaryan, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, argues that the concept of the post-Soviet space “is sweepingly losing or has already lost its value.” He describes it as “fake” because the post-Soviet countries don’t have relevant and actual commonalities regardless of their shared historical and cultural past.

Iskandaryan believes that today one should not overestimate the significance of common cultural ties and social narratives, at least because the Soviet generation is passing away, with the new generation thinking differently. The problem is that those who were born after 1991 are not aware of such a phenomenon as “the post-Soviet space” and prefer to speak with the citizens of their neighbor countries not in Russian, but in English. In other words, they prefer Europe and the U.S. to Russia. 

The longer the disintegration will take place, the more cultural differences will be, and the faster the post-Soviet identity will disappear… What unites us is the fact that we are incomplete, [we are] hydrides,” Iskandaryan said during the Feb. 2 discussion at Carnegie Moscow Center, adding that even common geography is not a binding element.

However, Yaroslav Lissovolik, the Eurasian Development Bank’s chief economist, doesn’t agree. During a Feb. 9 round table at a media center in Moscow, he highlighted the importance of geography and its integration potential. To quote him, “geography is destiny” and Russian should jump at the opportunity to foster economic integration processes in the post-Soviet space, because it could accelerate growth and investment, an essential factor of better relations with neighbors. And the stronger the crises in the post-Soviet space, the more efforts should be undertaken, the more important any achievements will be.

In contrast, Kolesnikov, Iskandaryan and Dubnov are rather skeptical about the vitality and efficiency of the integration projects and institutions in the post-Soviet space. They are inclined to see it as an incoherent attempt by Moscow to maintain its influence and mythical attractiveness in the region.

In a nutshell, the more eagerly Moscow tries to save its clout in the Near Abroad, the more frustration comes from the Kremlin. Yet this is the direct result of Russia’s policy in Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014. It grabbed one slice (South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea), but lost the entire pie (Georgia and Ukraine), to quote Iskandaryan, who describes the Kremlin-led integration projects as “a wheel with different spokes.”

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Thus, he implies that Russia just doesn’t have enough resources to unite its neighbors under one integration project. More bluntly, he sees the Eurasian Economic Union as “a way of expressing loyalty” toward Moscow.

United by conflicts

In contrast, Sergey Markedonov, associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, firmly believes that Russia doesn’t seek to maintain its dominance in the post-Soviet space. “It just tries to defend its specific national interests in the Near Abroad,” he told Russia Direct.

“When we are talking about the post-Soviet space, we usually mean a group of countries united by shared history, culture, and common borders, but not necessarily by common national interests,” he added. “And this leads to misperceptions: We should not equate the commonalities between former Soviet countries (including Russia) in their bilateral relations with all their contradictions and conflicts. I mean, the fact that former Soviet countries are not always united in their outlook doesn’t mean that they don’t have something that can bring them together.”

However, Iskandaryan admits that the post-Soviet countries indeed have some ties with Moscow and should take into account its clout. Yet these ties are ambiguous in their nature and often result in their bluntly expressed attitude toward Russia, be it favorable or unfavorable. Naturally, this creates many conflicts.

Yet the very fact that all these conflicts “go back to the Soviet past and in this regard the post-Soviet space does really exist and it will exist as long the conflicts persist,” said Markedonov. 

Paradoxically, this unity is based on the presence of conflicts and contradictions,” he added. “The post-Soviet space will disappear only when normal and sustainable countries with a well-established national identity will emerge in this region. So far, it is a long way to go.”