What is worth studying in the post-Soviet space?

What is worth studying in the post-Soviet space?

Dr. Alexander Osipov

It won’t be correct to say that the former Soviet countries (which are increasingly termed as Northern Eurasia instead) are neglected in ethnopolitical studies. However, post-Soviet ethnopolitics are usually regarded as having relevance primarily for the region itself plus rarely for the neighboring countries’ security. Only in a few instances the analysis of the post-soviet developments is placed in a broader geographical context and examined as food for thought for grasping common social trends, policy patterns, and state-building perspectives worldwide or at least across Europe. Below I would like to contest this perception and point out some phenomena and related questions that might prompt new research agendas or shed light on previously neglected issues. Additionally, along with empirical analysis related normative considerations must be also of interest.

Before listing some of these issues, I would like to make two remarks. Any analysis would be more productive if we overcome a widely spread and unreflective habit of treating all manifestations of national or ethnic distinctness as a sign of a group’s agency as such. The second one is about a confusion (also often unreflective) of empirical analysis and normative judgments. In Eurasia, this kind of approach often means that an analysis of how society is functioning is substituted with studying whether realities fit into a certain legal and political ideal. The best thing we can do is to clearly distinguish between ‘ought’ and ‘is’.

Why a weak ethnic mobilization?

The first phenomenon that has been basically overlooked is a relatively weak and/or rare mass mobilization on ethnic grounds. This point may look odd because in the eyes of many the territory of the former Soviet Union is strongly associated with ethnic conflicts or at least claims and tensions that in turn implies collective engagement and action. This perception is partly true. There were ethnic wars and still there are unresolved conflicts; there are cases of mass and well-organized ethnic movements such as the one centering on the Mejlis (elected governing body) of the Crimean Tatars. However, a closer look reveals that the major ethnic movements in Northern Eurasia emerged in the last years before the USSR breakdown. The later collective claims and outbreaks of violence were rather inertia of the previous developments; escalations are rather outnumbered by the cases of ethnic demobilization.

For example, the movements of the so-called formerly deported peoples in Russia (such as the Balkars, Germans, Kalmyks, Ingushs) which had been massive and vociferous in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by the mid-1990s became inactive although they had not achieved most of their goals and seemed to have a good potential for further action. This cannot be explained by any governmental pressure or intimidation because it did not play a role at that time. The protest mobilization of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic States and Moldova took place in the late 1980s but degraded soon. In the first half of the 1990s, Rogers Brubaker was predicting mass protest or subversive movements of ‘Russians’ in the former Soviet republics who would have been unhappy about the loss of their allegedly privileged status and angry about ‘nationalizing’ policies in the newly independent states [1]. Nothing like this happened; there was no such entity as ‘Russians’, and people identified as such opted by a range of individual adaptation strategies [2]. The exception is Transnistria, but this phenomenon is strictly speaking not ethnicity-based, and has specific features that make it barely comparable with other cases [3].

Looking back at the post-Soviet developments, we can say that largely neither majority nor minority nationalist movements have succeeded in electoral or extra-systemic protest mobilization [4]. Of course, nationalism in a variety of shapes is part of all spectrums of the political landscape, but most people belonging to both ‘titular’ and ‘non-titular’ ethnicities generally vote for centrist parties. People might be disappointed about the poor economic performance of the newly independent states and ‘nationalizing’ policies changing the previously comfortable social environments, but the protest voices are few and weak both in authoritarian (such as Kazakhstan) or pluralist countries (such as Ukraine or Moldova).

Such inactivity on ethnic grounds and conformism beg questions, but there is no comprehensive theoretical explanation so far. There are only partial interpretations of the empirical evidence that the very institutional and cultural design of the post-Soviet societies is unfavorable for collective self-organization and collective action and that people prefer individual adaptation strategies. Some scholars point out that the post-Soviet citizenry opts for ‘negative adaptation’ and routinely reject any activities or changes that can jeopardize the already achieved status quo to unfavorable and unfriendly realities [5]. This conservatism based on the desire to avoid changes to the worse can be even proactive and aggressive [6]. Some pay attention to the dependence of large segments of the population on governmental or business structures and thus the loss of subjectivity [7]. There must be also a role of informality and normative uncertainty that allow multiple scenarios of social and cultural adjustment [8].

However, the study of strategies of survival in a multiethnic environment and particularly under uneven governmental treatment of different languages and ethnicities is a fundamental empirical and theoretical task. The phenomenon of the post-Soviet weak mobilization fits in broader and truly global trends. In cognitive and mental respects this is about postmodern uncertainty according to the context denoted as hybridity, relativism, bricolage, and the lack of clear boundaries and guidelines. In terms of access to resources in neo-liberal frameworks, this is about the flexibility of market conditions and the customization of services to individual needs that rather discourage than encourage collective claims, mobilization, and advocacy. Respectively, here come legitimate questions about the potential effects of such uncertainty and flexibility on ethnic relations and in the instrumentalization (or lack of) ethnic or racial belonging.

One can also look from a normative standpoint. Many people are legitimately concerned about securing the peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities and concurrently achieving social justice, albeit conceptualized in different ways. So far, within the major communicative frames pertinent to ethnocultural and racial politics, such as minority protection and non-discrimination, the proposed strategies rest on forming group subjectivity and fostering collective resistance capacities (often terms as empowerment). In practical terms, this means institutional encapsulation of groups within various autonomous arrangements, the facilitation of group involvement in decision-making, and the demands of resource redistribution in favor of assumingly disadvantaged categories. Even if such strategies truly led to a more just and safe society, one shall always keep in mind the side back effects. Probably, the major one is the creation of images of dominant and subordinate groups, the cultivation of the sense of group vulnerability, and the further competition of group victimhoods [9].

In light of such risks, one can legitimately assume that securing a range of individual adaptation strategies must be promising in terms of conflict prevention, social inclusion, and fair resource distribution. The perspective of social atomization won’t delight too many people for different reasons, but it opens a window of opportunity. In theory, such conditions, strategies, and respective policy toolkits might be feasible and effective in areas other than Northern Eurasia.

What do institutional weakness and ambiguity mean?

It is commonplace for many authors to assess the post-Soviet legislative frameworks and public institutions pertinent to nationalities or minority issues as loose, incomplete, outdated, or even sham. Indeed, one can point to numerous instances when the legislation was unclear or eclectic, the government was lacking a certain strategy or vision of nation-building, and the implementation was flawed in the meaning that the law can be circumvented or negotiated. However, formal frameworks are not a value as such; they are needed for achieving certain goals. Most post-Soviet countries remain multi-ethnic while diversity is not among the major challenges to these countries’ stability. Of course, there are grievances about the state of the art almost everywhere, but there is little evidence of large-scale and organized discrimination, and the people can express their ethnic distinctness. Then arise questions about the linkage between a relatively laminar development of ethnic relations and the institutional incompleteness and ambiguity. One may argue that the latter matches the societal atomization pointed out before, and this is the major explanation behind the lack of collective claims and subsequent conflicts.

Can we also expect that loose organizational frameworks and declarative laws as such have ‘anti-fragile’ effects in the meaning that they provide more room and a wider range for the accommodation of diversity? Ideological mainstream pertinent to ethnic and linguistic diversity in most post-Soviet countries is eclectic and inconsistent; besides, official narratives often mute or do not articulate controversial issues such as the ethnic fundamentals of the statehood. Can one say that an eclectic and to a certain extend hypocritical narrative is non-conflictual because it pleases or at least does not annoy the major segments of the population? Shouldn’t we also regard official diversity management as primarily part of the symbolic policy or, in other words, the production of socially acceptable metanarratives and ideas of normal social order within the given multiethnic country? Then institutional frameworks and official narratives serve as performative devices – they create reality rather than seek to regulate it.

Such questions are also of interest from a normative perspective. Robust public institutions designed to shape and regulate multiethnicity along with clear official ideologies bear certain risks that stem from setting up group boundaries and creating the images of privileged and deprived groups. Loose organizational and normative frameworks combined with the government’s ‘systemic hypocrisy’ [10], on the contrary, provide opportunities for avoiding such scenarios. If integration is the ability to peacefully live along, why shouldn’t one consider institutional and ideological uncertainty as an avenue in this direction?

Is the Soviet legacy of no interest?

It is not a hard task to identify numerous discursive forms, legal provisions, organizational settings, or administrative practices in the post-Soviet diversity policies as inherited from the communist past [11]. Most scholars by default would regard the Soviet legacies as a deviation or anachronism. However, the loose institutional settings and normative inconsistencies that assumingly provide for the post-Soviet societies’ stability, relative coherence, and governability are basically part of the said legacy. Therefore, it makes sense to separate empirical analysis from normative considerations and thus draw a distinction between repressive practices of the communist regime and its modes of diversity conceptualization. The Soviet rulers managed to cope with ethnic diversity not necessarily through violence and coercion so that multi-ethnicity did not pose a major challenge to the country’s stability throughout most parts of its history [12]. To put it simply, in the second half of the 1980s the rulers of the USSR transferred their ethnic diversity conceptualization from the domain of closed decision-making combined with propaganda rituals to the area of open expert discussions and then public politics. This process and its consequences are more complex than nationalities policy ‘deinstitutionalization’ [13] and they truly deserve more scholarly attention. Moreover, these legacies assumingly contribute to the integrity of the successor states. This consideration is not about the glorification of the Soviet achievements or ‘normalization’ of repressive practices. This is about asking questions about the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of modernist conceptualizations of national and ethnic diversity in different social contexts.

What the European neighborhood policy can bring about?

Here I use the term ‘ neighborhood policy’ in a broad meaning and regardless of the EU frameworks proper for denoting all activities of the European actors aimed at facilitating the development of adjacent countries. One should talk about a complex interplay of intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental organizations (and not the EU alone) striving to affect transformations in the post-Soviet countries. With regard to ethnic diversity issues (let’s skip other areas) we are talking about one-way traffic; European actors channel ideas, expertise, persuasion, and money eastwards, and so far there are no reasons to talk about the opposite movement. Indeed, the European organizations including the EU play a significant role through their conditionality policy, human rights monitoring, conflict-related diplomacy, and support to civil society activities. The most notable initiatives are the EU’s requirements about the adoption of laws against discrimination (enacted in Georgia in 2014, Moldova in 2012 and Ukraine in 2012) and the programs for the support of Roma population; the EU and other organizations demonstrate concern about minority issues on a multiplicity of occasions. The broadly understood neighborhood policy is relatively well studied, and there have been also numerous publications about its role in ethnopolitics [14]. Nevertheless, still, there are questions to be first raised, and then hopefully answered. Still, they are about what is being delivered, how it is being delivered, and what effects it generates on the ground.

In terms of first ‘what’ – how big is the difference in the conceptualizations on, so to say, the ‘European’ and the ‘post-Soviet’ sides? Both share the same basic assumptions. The first one is ethnic nationalism: no one challenges the very principle of ethno-national underpinning of statehood whatever it might mean in practice. Indeed, the very frame of minority protection is a derivative of the nationalist worldview, and it can be (and is) used as a tool of restrictions and social exclusion. Respectively, the European institutions have nothing to say about the issues most acute and controversial for the local populaces namely the so-called historical policies and the so-called ‘nationalization’, or empowerment of the ‘core’ ethno-nations [15] and broader – ideas of remedying wrong-doings of the Russian imperial and communist rule. Moreover, sometimes the European organizations overtly defend ‘nationalizing’ policies; a clear example was the campaign against the 2012 Ukrainian law on the fundamentals of language policy [16]. Besides, the European organizations and their experts seem to share other assumptions linked with ethnonationalism such as the priority of autochthonous ethnicities, the treatment of languages as an attribute of ethnicity and primary support to allegedly victimized or deprived groups. European instruments are drafted rather ambiguously leaving much room for interpretation, but all these elements can be spotted in the CoE Language Charter and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Expert opinions are even more striking; a good example is the Venice Commission’s opinion on the 2019 Ukrainian law “On Securing the Functioning of Ukrainian as the State Language” [17]. The law drastically restricts the opportunities of non-state languages in public and private use, discriminating besides between languages, and the Venice Commission criticizes the Ukrainian lawmakers on these grounds. However, the European experts cannot but operate the notion of ‘national minority languages’ thus regarding language as an asset of the respective ethnic minority. It turns out that there is no room for the notion of lingua franca and no ability to talk about language pragmatically from a grass-root perspective – as a matter of business, access to education and habitual lifestyle rather than of imaginary group ‘identity’. What is the main difference from the official stance of the Ukrainian authorities then? The good news is that European experts do not regard references to past wrongdoings as a valid legal argument although they usually express ‘understanding’ [18].

The questions about common features shall be followed by questions about the differences. The frames that the ‘European’ side operates – minority protection and non-discrimination – are eventually conflictual ones; their epiphenomenon is the creation of the images of dominant and subjugated groups. It is unlikely that European actors want troubles for their addressees and clients; every motion must have a legitimate explanation. For example, the anti-discrimination laws were adopted in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine because the EU wanted to have legal reasons for declining all asylum applications on the grounds of discrimination in these countries before the introduction of the visa-free regime. Nevertheless, it would be good to explore what the EU and other European stakeholders really expect of the post-Soviet diversity policies. Do they merely want to forestall extremes? Or do they seek to secure formal compliance of the post-Soviet domestic policies with some normative guidelines? Or do they (primarily non-state organizations colloquially known as grant-eaters) want to perform rituals before their donors? Is it a kind of ‘administrative market’ [19] – European tax-payers’ money in exchange for a proper imitation of activities, i.e. good applications and good reporting?

Related questions are about the effects of the ‘Western’ involvement in domestic diversity policies. So far, the post-Soviet countries manage to maintain certain equilibrium in ethnic relations, partly because of institutional ambiguity, partly because the mainstream narratives are to a large extent hypocritical, eclectic, and thus conciliatory (like the preceding Soviet ones). If Europe brings about more streamlined legislation and executive guidelines, what will follow after the collapse of the said balance?

The questions about ‘what’ and ‘how’ have been partly addressed in the literature at the macro-level, or the level of interstate relations and normative frameworks. Meso- and micro-levels have been explored even to a lesser degree. How do international offices and missions function? Do they demonstrate a colonialist mode of behavior as anecdotal evidence often tells? How do the local stakeholders and the general public understand the newly imported expertise? How is it utilized in law-making, administration, and propaganda? Noteworthy, for too many people in countries like Ukraine joining Europe, means nothing more than to move away from Russia and to create a full-fledged nation-state [20].

Indeed, people have many reasons to treat Northern Eurasia as a global periphery, an unfulfilled promise after communism’s collapse, and a source of problems for the neighbors. Nevertheless, food for thought has a value notwithstanding where it comes from. At least in this respect, the region is of interest.


[1] Brubaker, Rogers. 1996. Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.49-51.
[2] Laitin, David D. 1998. Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
[3] For more see: Mason, John A. 2009. “Internationalist Mobilization during the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Moldovan Elections of 1990.” Nationalities Papers37 (2): 159–76; Troebst, Stefan. 2003. “‘We Are Transnistrians!’ Post-Soviet Identity Management in the Dniester Valley.” Ab Imperio4: 437–466.
[4] With regard to Russia, for instance, this phenomenon was noticed and analysed by formulated by Elise Giuliano and Dmitry Gorenburg; Giuliano, Elise, and Dmitry Gorenburg. 2012. “The Unexpectedly Underwhelming Role of Ethnicity in Russian Politics, 1991–2011.” Demokratizatsiya 20 (2): 175–88.
[5] Levada, Yuri. 2011. Sochineniya: Problema cheloveka[Collected works: a human issue]. Moscow: Karpov; Rose, Richard, William Mishler, and Neil Munro. 2004. “Resigned Acceptance of an Incomplete Democracy: Russia’s Political Equilibrium.” Post-Soviet Affairs 20 (3): 195–218.
[6] Greene, Samuel A. 2018. “Running to stand still: aggressive immobility and the limits of power in Russia.” Post-Soviet Affairs34 (5): 333-347.
[7] Allina-Pisano, Jessica. 2010. “Social contracts and authoritarian projects in post-Soviet space: The use of administrative resource.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies43 (4): 373-82; Mamonova, Natalia. 2019. “Understanding the silent majority in authoritarian populism: what can we learn from popular support for Putin in rural Russia?” The Journal of Peasant Studies46 (3): 561-85.
[8] Polese, Abel. 2016. Limits of a Post-Soviet State. How Informality Replaces, Renegotiates, and Reshapes Governance in Contemporary Ukraine. New York: Columbia University Press.
[9] The term is borrowed from: Young, Isaac F., and Daniel Sullivan. 2016. “Competitive victimhood: a review of the theoretical and empirical literature.” Current Opinion in Psychology 11: 30-34.
[10] Brunsson, Neil. 1989. The Organization of Hypocrisy. Talk, decisions and actions in organizations. Chichester, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
[11] Osipov, Alexander et al. 2014. Politika upravleniia ethnoculturanym raznoobraziem v Belarusi, Moldove i Ukraine[Policies of ethno-cultural diversity management in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine]. Vilnius: European Humanities University.
[12] Gitelman, Zvi. 1994. “Nationality and Ethnicity in Russia and the Post-Soviet Republics.” In Developments in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics. Third Edition. Edited by Stephen White, Alex Pravda, Zvi Gitelman. Houndmills, Basingstoke and London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, pp.237-265; Shanin, Teodor. 1989. “Ethnicity in the Soviet Union: Analytical Perceptions and Political Strategies.” Comparative Studies in Society and History31 (3): 409-24, at 419.
[13] Hughes, James, and Gwendolyn Sasse. 2001. “Conflict and Accommodation in the Former Soviet Union: The Role of Institutions and Regimes.” Regional & Federal Studies11 (3): 220-40.
[14] Galbreath, David J., and Joanne McEvoy. 2012. The European minority rights regime: towards a theory of regime effectiveness. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Sasse, Gwendolyn. 2008. “The politics of EU conditionality: the norm of minority protection during and beyond EU accession.” Journal of European Public Policy15 (6): 842–60.
[15] Brubaker. op.cit.,p.9.
[16] Law of Ukraine “On the fundamentals of the state language policy” of 3 July 2012 No.5029-VI. The law was a compromise that did not question the status of Ukrainian as the state language; the problem was that it provided room for other languages and did not envisage any sticks for forcing people to use Ukrainian. The campaign was supported by the European Commission, the CoE Secretary General, the OSCE HCNM, the CoE Venice Commission, and other institutions.
[17] CDL-AD(2019)032. European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). Ukraine. Opinion on the Law on supporting the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language. Adopted by the Venice Commission at its 121st Plenary Session (Venice, 6-7 December 2019), particularly items 30-33, 36, 58.
[18] Ibid., items 31, 44, 134.
[19] The term coined by Simon Kordonsky; see. Kordonsky, Simon. 2006. Rynki vlasti. Administrativbye rynki SSSR I Rossii [Markets of power. Administrative markets of the USSR and Russia]. Moscow: OGI.
[20] Orlova, Dariya, 2017. “‘Europe’ as a Normative Model in the Mediatised Discourse of Ukrainian Political Elites.” Europe-Asia Studies69:2, 222-41, at 224; Svyetlov, Oleksandr. 2007. “Ukraine’s ‘return to Europe’: Path dependence as a source of mutual elite misunderstanding.” Perspectives on European Politics and Society8 (4): 528-43, at 536.

Image: © UNIAN

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