There was a small amount of coverage earlier this month for the thirtieth anniversary of the August coup in Moscow – the attempt to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev that instead hastened the end of the Soviet Union. If you’re interested, you can read what I wrote ten years earlier for the twentieth anniversary; I wouldn’t now use such an optimistic tone about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but otherwise I think it holds up well.
But the fact that the coup began the dissolution of the union means that a lot of countries have just celebrated or are about to celebrate thirty years of independence. Estonia on 20 August, Ukraine on 24 August, Belarus 25 August, Moldova 27 August, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan today, Tajikistan next week, 9 September, and Armenia 21 September. (Lithuania, Latvia and Georgia had declared independence earlier; Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan left it until late in the year.)
The former Soviet states fit into four groups. The three Baltic states have been the most successful; they are stable democracies, all now members of the European Union. Moldova plus the three transcaucasian republics form the second group; they have had a more difficult time of it, but they have all moved away from the Russian umbrella and all except Azerbaijan have held democratic elections.
In the third group are the five central Asian states, where Communist authoritarianism segued into nationalist authoritarianism, usually with no change in personnel. Kyrgyzstan is the only one with claims to be a democracy, and even that status is in doubt after a dubious presidential election earlier this year. Things could easily be worse (and at times have been), but all five remain firmly in the Russian sphere of influence, although Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan flaunt their neutrality.
The fourth group consists of Belarus and Ukraine, plus of course Russia itself. All the other republics (with the possible exception of Kazakhstan) can be called peripheral; these three were the core of the Soviet Union, and it was Ukraine’s decision for independence that made its continuation impossible. No surprise that Ukraine is the country where the anniversary has been most noticed.
In recent years, Belarus and Ukraine have gone in opposite directions. Belarus, under embattled dictator Alexander Lukashenko, has fallen more and more tightly into the Russian embrace. Ukraine, since the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, has pitched its tent toward the west, and has paid the price with the loss of Crimea and an ongoing Russian-sponsored insurrection in its easternmost provinces.
Ukraine’s foreign minister last week called on the EU to commit to further expansion among the post-Soviet states, including Ukraine. “The EU should make a very simple message: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, you are part of us. We do not set a deadline but you will be in the EU.” Already struggling with the much lesser problems of expansion in the western Balkans, this is probably not something the EU leadership wants to hear.
Yet it is not a silly suggestion. Certainly Moldova should be high in the queue for EU membership, either in its own right or via reunion with Romania. Georgia is less obviously European, but otherwise has strong claims; it is the only transcaucasian state with a Black Sea coastline. And Ukraine is undeniably part of Europe, with strong historical connections with such neighbors as Poland, Hungary and Romania.
The problem, as usual, is Russia. It too is manifestly a European country – while the bulk of its territory is in Asia, three-quarters of its population is in Europe and it is overwhelmingly European in linguistic and cultural terms. But while absorption of Ukraine might seem manageable if difficult (it would be the fifth-most populous EU member if it joined), Russia dwarfs all of its western neighbors, with almost as many people as Germany and France combined.
And under its current regime, Russia has no interest in EU membership: Putin sees himself as the leader of a rival power bloc, a role that he sometimes decks out with ideological trappings but that more often amounts to crude old-fashioned power politics. Russia will have to change very significantly (as of course it has in the past, often with startling speed) before its relationship with the EU can be normalised in a way that might eventually lead to membership.
But until that change happens, Russia’s former subject territories will need to keep treading the fine line between Russian and European influence – and the EU itself will remain a half-complete project.