Ex-Soviet Republics Reject Full Independence

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus, Baltic States

Kate Brown is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland, winner of the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize.

The national revolutions in the former Soviet Union surprised most Kremlin watchers when they began in 1989. The general wisdom was that, beyond the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940s — everyone else in the USSR believed they were Soviet.

On the usually quiet streets of Kishinev (now Chisinau) in the Moldavian Republic, however, ethnic Moldovans fought ethnic Russians in nationalist clashes. In 1990 in Kiev, hunger-striking students starved for Ukrainian independence on the cold stone steps of the Maidan. In January 1991, the darkest days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule, Russian tanks barreled over protesters in Vilnius, Lithuania, taking the lives of 14 civilians.

The cries for national self-determination broke the formerly indivisible Soviet Union into a heap of quarreling fragments. The collapse of the USSR was reminiscent of the partition of multinational empires into smaller nation-states under the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson is erroneously credited with coining the phrase “national self-determination” in his Fourteen Points speech, which became the founding document for the breakup of European empires at Versailles in 1918.

Wilson, in fact, never uttered those words in that speech. Instead, he advocated for self-governance of all people in an increasingly interdependent global economy within the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, formed to maintain peace and security. When the Soviet empire finally collapsed in 1991, only Central Asia — including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan — had no real national movements seeking independence. Central Asian leaders, the last to flee the crumbling union, said they would rather stay at that time, fearing the economic viability of their republics as nation-states....

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