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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Orphans of the USSR: the return of the Slavs

UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Orphans of the USSR: the return of the Slavs
UNHCR publication for CIS Conference

1 May 1996
When the Soviet Union broke up, some 34 million Russians, Ukranians and Belarusians, no longer sure whether they were at home or abroad, began to feel insecure in the newly independent republics where they were residing. By 1996, over 3 million had returned to their ethnic homelands, creating severe economic strains at both ends.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, dozens of diasporas were created overnight. Estimates of the total number of people who found themselves living outside their 'home' republics or autonomous regions range from 54 to 65 million - one-fifth of the population of the former Soviet Union. Of these, some 34 million belonged to the three main 'Slavic' nationalities - Russians (over 25 million), Ukrainians (close to 7 million) and Belarusians (over 2 million). For all of them, in a sense, 'home' had suddenly become abroad.

The five new Central Asian states between them housed 11 million Slavs. The three Caucasian states (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) contained some 900,000. The situation of Slavs living in the other republics quickly became one of the most sensitive political issues in the region, and still is.

Many Soviet citizens, especially the Slavs, had grown into the habit of feeling at home anywhere within the Soviet Union's frontiers. It was, after all, a single country with an all-powerful centre controlling an intricately linked command economy. Between 1930 and 1970, millions of Slavs settled in other parts of the Soviet Union in search of better pay, decent housing and a higher social and professional status. In many cases, they were strongly encouraged to move by the Soviet authorities, who, in addition to the general political aim of strengthening control and cohesion thoughout the country, also wished to develop underdeveloped areas and boost agricultural and industrial production.

In 1989, Russians were the largest or second-largest minority in all bar one of the other republics. In Kazakstan, there were almost as many Russians as there were Kazaks (6.2 million and 6.5 million respectively). In several republics, especially in Central Asia, Slavs dominated the professional elite. By and large, they felt comfortable: politically and culturally dominant, economically secure, and at home. All these sentiments were severely undermined when the Soviet state that had nurtured them suddenly disintegrated.

The great majority of Slavs - and most of the other minorities - were plunged into a state of confusion and uncertainty. Very few had ever learned the local language. They had never needed to - Russian was the lingua franca for the whole of the former Soviet Union, and particularly the cities where most Slavs lived. By the early 1990s, in all the newly independent states, the local language had in practice become the new official state language. Street signs were replaced. Schools and universities switched to using the local language. In some cases, knowledge of the local language became a job requirement. Local culture was vigorously promoted. Many of the republics shed their Soviet coating with amazing speed. Fear of loss of livelihood, or at least of diminished living standards, became one of the major factors encouraging the newly-metamorphosed 'foreigners' to pack up and go.

The second major factor, the one which in some areas turned anxiety into serious panic, was a rise in inter-ethnic tensions. Frictions had first begun to claw their way out of the Soviet cocoon in the 1980s, when inter-ethnic riots took place in several republics and - in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan - a full-blown war broke out. At the same time, nationalist sentiments were on the rise throughout the Soviet Union's constituent republics. Without the support of the powerful centre, Slavs suddenly felt exposed and began to fear for their physical security.

Since the collapse of the USSR, according to the Russian authorities, some 3 million people have moved from other republics to the Russian Federation. The majority of them are Russian-speakers. Although Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian civilians have not been directly caught up in any of the conflicts in the other CIS countries, the great majority of those who have returned to their historical homeland have come from areas where fighting has taken place or where ethnic tensions are perceived to exist.

The Central Asian republics - which have suffered severe economic difficulties and witnessed a major conflict in Tajikistan, and two other serious inter-ethnic clashes - have experienced large exoduses of Slavs. In total, more than 1.9 million have left since 1989, in the belief that they have a greater chance of finding a more secure future in their historical homeland (see Central Asia on the Move). Similarly, most of the much smaller number of Slavs who were living in the conflict-ridden Caucasian republics have also left, either to avoid the fighting or for economic reasons.

By 1995, however, a counter movement was also starting to emerge, even as the exodus continued. Increasing numbers of Slavs and other recent emigrants - even a handful of the Germans who had been assisted to move to Germany - have begun returning to the republics which they left only a year or two ago. Many of those who move, particularly those who have few close relatives in their historical 'homeland,' have great difficulty finding work in depressed labour markets. They also often encounter hostility from the local population in the places where they settle. Having left Central Asia or the Caucasus because they no longer felt at home there, some emigrants then find they feel even less at home in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus. For some, the dilemma - Where does their best hope for the future lie? Where do they feel least foreign? - is particularly poignant. Unlike many smaller ethnic minorities, they do not even share a common identity with Slavs leaving other republics. They are truly orphans of the USSR.

Many of the republics realized early on that the draining away of so many of their skilled professionals was extremely damaging to their economies and, to varying degrees, they have been trying to encourage the remaining Slavs and other nervous minorities to stay. For example, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have allowed people originating from other republics to hold dual citizenship, and in March 1996, Kyrgyzstan's parliament passed a proposal to make Russian an official language. The Kyrgyz government has also announced plans to introduce a new passport, in which mention of the holder's ethnic origin will no longer be mandatory.

The continuing struggle of the "deported peoples"

Two of the entire nations forcibly relocated by Stalin to Central Asia in the 1940s are still in the process of trying to return to their original homelands fifty years later. Whereas the Crimean Tatars have made some progress, the Meskhetians are not only still unable to return, but have also suffered a a second involuntary displacement - this time as a result of inter-ethnic violence rather than the policy of the state.

The Crimean Tatars: halfway home

The charge of treason against the Crimean Tatars was not formally lifted until 1967. Even then, they were not permitted to return to Crimea, despite conducting a long and concerted campaign to have their right to return recognized. In 1988, a small number of Crimean Tatars managed to re-enter Crimea and take possession of unoccupied pieces of land. In 1990, they began flooding back. By 1996, about half the Crimean Tatars (some 250,000) had returned. In the process, they have aroused hostility among other groups living on the politically sensitive peninsula, and are themselves leading a marginal, unregularized and poverty-stricken existence. The situation is further complicated by the possibility that many of the 250,000 Crimean Tatars remaining in Central Asia may also try to return in the near future.

The Meskhetians: still a long way to go

Even though the German army never even reached their home region in south-west Georgia, 200,000 Meskhetians (including some small neighbouring groups) were forcibly relocated to Central Asia in November 1944. In 1968, they were the last group to be cleared of treason (of which they had never even been formally accused in the first place). To this day, only 300 have managed to return to Georgia and stay there, mainly because of local hostility. Several thousand migrated to Azerbaijan after 1956, since it was one step closer to home. Of the remainder, the majority (106,000) lived in Uzbekistan until June 1989, when fighting broke out between Meskhetians and Uzbeks in a market place in the volatile Ferghana Valley. After two weeks of fighting and around 100 deaths, the situation became so bad that 74,000 Meskhetians were evacuated by troops sent by Moscow. The majority (around 44,000) went to Azerbaijan, which has granted them refugee status. Other groups went to the Russian Federation, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. More Meskhetians left Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union was disbanded in 1991. Their situation remains extremely difficult, and their future uncertain.