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Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (After the Soviet Union) - Hostages of the empire

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1994

An estimated 25 million Russians today live outside of Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic countries. Their presence is perhaps the most complex legacy of the Soviet era.

By Claire Messina
Coordinator, CIS & Baltic states International Organization for Migration

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the IOM. For the sake of simplicity, the countries of the CIS except for Russia and the Baltic states are referred to as "the republics."

The presence of important Russian communities in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic countries constitutes perhaps the most complex legacy of the Soviet era. Several factors make this issue the linchpin of the post-Soviet landscape, including:

  • the sheer size of these communities (around 25 million people, or 17.4 percent of all Russians in 1989);
  • the significant role they play in the social and economic life of these states;
  • the geopolitical importance of the so-called "near abroad" for Russia;
  • the geopolitical importance of Russia for the states of the region.

In the aftermath of the Soviet break-up, the "Russian minority question" has come to play a central role in the process of redefinition by the CIS and Baltic states of their respective roles and interests in the region.

They have been called "hostages of the empire" people whose destiny happened to cross that of a huge multinational state in disintegration. Indeed, whether these Russian communities will remain in or leave their current homes, and whether they will stay on as an integrated ethnic group or as an alienated minority, will depend less on their own behaviour than on that of the major actors Russia and the republics.

Conversely, the attitudes of these states towards the Russian communities living outside of Russia will constitute a valuable indicator of where these states want to go, and what they want to become. Will Russia become an aggressive regional power with neo-imperial ambitions, or a democratic one, keen on dialogue with its neighbours? Will the CIS and Baltic states become self-centered, mono-ethnic entities, or democratic, pluralist and tolerant societies? The answers to such crucial questions will be found in these states' policies concerning the Russian minority.

Between 1930 and 1970, millions of Slavs and particularly Russians settled in what were then the Soviet republics in search of better pay, decent housing and rewarding jobs. As a result of these unprecedented migratory flows, by the late 1980s Russians constituted the largest ethnic minority in almost all of the republics. In 1989, their share of the total population of the republics oscillated between 1.6 percent in Armenia and 37.8 percent in Kazakhstan.

A highly transient population, the Russian migrants were a typical product of the Soviet regime. Living in Tallinn or Tashkent did not make any difference to them, for they considered all of the republics as an integral part of the same country, the USSR. In moving, they might sacrifice stability for higher social status. After a while, they would move again, responding to the government's or the Komsomol's appeal to toil the virgin lands of Central Asia. And they would retire in the Baltic region, where life was almost as good as in Europe. They truly were the new Soviet people.

For these migrants, the break-up of the Soviet Union constituted a profound trauma. Suddenly, they found themselves living in a foreign land: "okazalis' v emigratsii" ("We found ourselves in the emigration"). What was their own homeland, then? Certainly not the village in Central Russia they had left years ago. Home was the USSR, which unfortunately for them no longer existed. As one of them put it: "Overnight, we became refugees. We didn't leave our country; it was our country that abandoned us."

Only by looking at the Russian immigrants as "true Soviet nomads," rather than as ethnic Russians, can one understand their behaviour in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most striking after the unsuccessful atttempted coup by communist hardliners and the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 is their passivity, coupled with a kind of stupor. The Russians had great difficulty in accepting the disappearance of their homeland and in adapting to the new realities. This should not come as a surprise, given the great extent to which the indigenous populations themselves were disoriented by these events. Still today, many millions of Russians living in the CIS and Baltic states are unable to face the epochal changes that have taken place around them, much less reckon with the consequences of such changes.

The first major, direct effect on Russians living in the republics has been the steady and rapid loss of their privileged position in local society. Says a Moscow sociologist: "The tragedy of the Russians in the republics is that, having got used to a comfortable status, they are now in a state of political apathy; they reject the new reality, do not fight for power and boycott elections."

The worsening of the Russians' once privileged social position is most bitterly felt, and indeed resented, in the Central Asian republics, where the difference in social level between the indigenous population and the Slavs was greatest. Although the prospect of a privileged social position was one of the attractions that drew Russians to the republics in the first place, the loss of this status does not necessarily mean that they will now leave en masse. Loss of status is a necessary condition for their departure, but not a sufficient one.

The second consequence of the 1991 events is that the Russians living in the republics are alone. Moscow no longer has the means to protect them, as it could during the Soviet era. Even worse, Moscow's interests and priorities do not always seem to coincide with those of the Russians living in the republics. This has particularly angered the latter, who have felt both betrayed and manipulated.

The Russians' growing solitude has gone through several stages. Immediately after the August 1991 attempted coup, Russia wilfully initiated a policy of disengagement from the political struggles of the independent republics, thus conveying the impression of abandoning the local Russians to their fate. At that time, the general feeling within Moscow's democratic circles, which had enthusiastically supported the independence movements in the republics, was that the Russians living in the republics were mostly hard-line communists who did not deserve their support.

In spring 1992, however, the Russian minority question began to play an increasingly important role both on Russia's domestic political scene and in its relationship with the "near abroad." The spark was the re-enactment of the Estonian citizenship law, which did not grant automatic citizenship to Russians permanently living in Estonia.

Since then, the Russian minority question has become a handy political tool for both ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand, the political debate has been successfully manipulated by chauvinist movements, which have accused the democratic government in Moscow of being excessively complacent with the republican authorities. The nationalists were and still are exploiting the issue to goad Russia into a greater involvement in the internal affairs of the republics.

On the other hand, the Russian democrats have felt betrayed by the authorities in the republics, particularly the Baltic states, whom they saw as turning against the local Russian population in order to consolidate their newly acquired power.

The Russian minority question has become the linchpin of Russia's foreign policy in the "near abroad." The debate was initially dominated by the contrasting approaches of then Vice President Rutskoi, who favoured the use of force in defense of Russian minorities, and Foreign Minister Kozyrev, partisan of a moderate approach. Very soon, however, the radicalization of the political atmosphere in Russia, spearheaded by the Supreme Soviet, led Kozyrev to adopt a more aggressive stance.

In early 1993, Kozyrev's and the Parliament's foreign policy positions began drawing closer. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense came to the forefront, calling for a more confrontational approach. Today, the differences between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense are skillfully played out to maximum advantage in what can be described as a "good guy/bad guy" strategy.

For the past two years, Russia has repeatedly accused the Baltic states of "gross violations of human rights," and some Central Asian ones of "Islamic fundamentalism." The predictable outcome of such an approach a net increase in tensions between Russia and the republics was clearly a liability for the Russians living in the republics. In fact, many of them have repeatedly expressed the wish that Russia conduct a less confrontational diplomacy on their behalf.

Moscow's aggressive foreign policy on the Russian minority question has led some observers to argue that Russia's priority appears to be less that of defending the rights and well-being of Russians in the republics, than that of pursuing other, more important foreign policy objectives.

The third major consequence of the 1991 events is that, in some republics, Russians no longer feel at home. While this growing feeling of alienation may be due to governmental policy, a more or less spontaneous popular mood, or exaggerated fears, there is no denying that Russians in the republics are feeling increasingly insecure and uncertain about their future. In Estonia and Latvia, this feeling has been reinforced by a clearly identifiable governmental line aimed at delaying or even hindering the acquisition by Russians of some form of legal status, with the not-so-hidden purpose of encouraging their departure from the country. This policy has indeed produced a feeling of insecurity in the Russian-speaking population and has reinforced their mistrust of local authorities. Despite this, it is clear that most Slavs have no intention of leaving the Baltic states, at least in the near future. In the final analysis, it appears that the policies of the Estonian and Latvian leaderships have created a climate of mistrust that is more detrimental to their own countries than to the Russian population itself.

What is the future of the Russian communities living in the republics? What options are available to them? The most discussed one is out-migration. This is called "repatriation" by Baltic officials who stress the ethnic link between the immigrants and Russia and "forced migration" by Russian authorities, who underscore the involuntary and even forcible nature of the outflow. Out-migration is favoured by the Baltic governments and by some groups of Russians, while the Central Asian governments, having realized its disruptive impact on the local economy, are actively looking for ways to keep the Russians in the region.

The Russian government, faced with a difficult social and economic situation, is de facto dissuading the Russians from coming back. While there is little doubt that an influx of even a few million would place great strain on Russian resources, some observers have concluded that Moscow's hidden agenda is to retain a Russian presence in the republic as a fifth column. As a Russian from Tajikistan angrily stated: "It's not just that Russia can't take us in, it doesn't want to. It's not just a matter of economic difficulties. Above all, it's a political problem. It's advantageous for Russia to keep us in the republics in the role of hostages."

Still, it is a fact that only a small percentage of the Russian population of the republics wants to leave. Most of the Russians have been living in the republics for more than 10 years, have married and are raising their children there. If the best interests of the Russian communities are to be taken into account, those who want to leave must be allowed and helped to do so. At the same time, those who want to stay must be encouraged and assisted in the process of integration. To be successful, this will require a change in attitude as well as policy by both Russia and the republics.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (1994)

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