The earthquake still shaking the world

The cataclysmic collapse 20 years ago of the Soviet Union, an empire which bound republics from Europe to Asia for seven decades, unleashed conflict, instability and poverty that are still felt today.

After a year of protests and economic misery, Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991 resigned as president of a state that had already ceased to exist as its republics broke away. That night, the red flag was taken down from the Kremlin.

It was the end of one of the most extraordinary empires in world history, which had defeated Nazi Germany and put the first man in space but had also caused the deaths of millions under a succession of tyrannical leaders.

The disintegration of the USSR left most of its 15 republics independent for the first time in their history, facing the challenge of founding a national identity and sustainable economy that many have yet to resolve.

Russia, deprived of an empire for the first time in modern times, struggled to adapt to its new status as an individual state and craved the superpower status it lost with the end of the Cold War.

Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has this December seen its first wave of significant popular protests in years as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the results of parliamentary polls.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union has remained strong: a recent poll by the independent Levada centre showed 53% of Russians regretted the fall of the USSR, although this is down from a figure of 75% in 2000.

Strongman leader Vladimir Putin has made clear his sorrow over its end, saying this month the last USSR leaders should have “consistently, fearlessly and steadfastly… fought for the territorial integrity of our country.”

The death knell of the Soviet Union sounded on a frosty evening on December 8 1991 when the president of the Russian part of the federation, Boris Yeltsin, agreed with his Belarussian and Ukrainian counterparts to replace the USSR with a commonwealth that would not be a state.

Gorbachev complained angrily, but within days had no option but to agree to the dissolution of the USSR and his own post. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist in international law on December 31 1991.

“The idea of rule from the centre had so badly compromised itself that the republics had no other option than to choose their own path of development,” Yeltsin, who died in 2007, wrote in his memoirs.

Given the scale of the event, the end of the Soviet Union passed remarkably peacefully. But the years after its demise saw conflicts erupt and hundreds of thousands killed as successor states and separatist movements fought over the new borders.

Civil war tore through Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan waged a horrific conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin fought two campaigns against separatists in Chechnya, and Georgia sought to quell secessionists in Abkhazia.

Every one of these conflicts is in many ways still unresolved — Islamists pose a threat to Tajikistan’s stability, the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is unresolved amid fears of a new conflict and Russia’s Caucasus is beset by attacks from insurgents.

In the most recent post-Soviet conflict, Russia repelled an attempt in August 2008 by Georgian forces to retake its rebel region of South Ossetia, leaving an uneasy truce in place.

“Twenty years of independence became a very heavy burden for many ex-Soviet states,” said Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.

For Russia, always the centre of the USSR since its inception, the collapse of the empire was hard to swallow. Attempts at liberal Western-style reforms in the Yeltsin era were deeply unpopular and the country looked back to the past when ex-KGB agent Putin came to power.

Only now, after 12 years of rule that resembled the authoritarian control of a Soviet leader, has Putin’s authority been challenged by an outburst of protests accusing the authorities of rigging parliamentary elections.

Twenty years after the fall of the USSR, Russia in 2011 made possibly the boldest attempt to re-forge the bonds broken by the fall, a Putin-backed “Eurasian Union” that resembles an EU for ex-Soviet states.

With only the three Baltic States joining the European Union and embracing an unequivocally Western future, the other former republics could yet be tempted to come back into Moscow’s orbit.

Ukraine, politically and linguistically divided between its west which scorns Russia and the east that fondly remembers Soviet rule, faces a historic choice between EU membership and re-aligning itself with Moscow.

Poverty still mires life in states like Moldova and Tajikistan at the opposite ends of the former USSR where annual per capita gross national income is just $1,810 and $800 respectively according to the World Bank and many have left for Moscow in search of work.

Central Asia is ruled by strongmen leaders, some of whom have not budged from their posts since 1991 and are prepared to take the toughest measures against the risk of a surge in Islamism in their Muslim but secular states.

Kazakhstan on December 16 endured its worst bloodshed since the fall of the Soviet Union when 15 people were killed in clashes between police and striking oil workers, a stark sign of the dangers of unsolved social tensions. — Sapa-AFP

Stuart Williams
Stuart Williams
Correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Previously Frankfurt, Paris, Nicosia, Tehran, Moscow and Istanbul.

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