Pål Kolstø

Interstate Integration in the Post-Soviet Space

The Role of the Russian Diasporas

printed in Renata Dwan and Oleksandr Pavliuk, eds,. Building Security in the New States of Eurasia: Subregional cooperation in the former Soviet space, Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2000


AUTHOR ID: Pål Kolstø is professor of Russian and East European Area Studies at the University of Oslo, specializing in nation-building and ethnic relations in the post-Soviet space. His books include Russians in the former Soviet Union (1995) and Political construction sites. Nation-building in Russia and the post-Soviet States (Boulder, Colo: Westview press, 2000)

Professor Pål Kolstø
Dept. of East European and Oriental Studies
University of Oslo
Box 1030, Blindern
N-0315 Oslo, Norway
tel (+47) 22 85 67 99/22 85 67 97
fax (+47)22 85 41 40
home address (weekends and Mondays):
Ramsvig 50 g
N-4015 Stavanger, Norway
tel/fax home (+47) 51 56 20 82
e-mail Pal.Kolsto@east.uio.no

The Russians living in the non-Russian Soviet successor states, approximately 25 million of them, represent an in-between category. As diaspora communities they generally belong to the new national community in these states in the civic sense, by virtue of their permanent residence and citizenship, but they are not regarded as members of the "nation" in the ethnic or cultural sense.

The integration of local Russians and other Russophone groups is one of the most urgent and vexing problems in the nation-building processes currently in full swing in the Soviet successor states. These processes are moving slowly forward, in fits and starts, but generally speaking it seems fair to say that on paper Russophones have received more rights and better conditions for becoming full-fledged members of society than they have in real life. This is true with regard to political, cultural, linguistic and, to some extent, economic conditions.

The in-between status of the Russian diaspora communities may, however, be viewed not only as a liability but also as an asset. Diaspora groups are generally believed to have certain opportunities and assets that other members of the local society do not have, precisely as a function of their in-between position. One authority on global diasporas maintain that "Diasporas score by being able to integrate the universal with the particular and by being able to use their cosmopolitanism to press the limits of the local." For instance, by virtue of being fluent Russian-speakers, Russians in the former Soviet republics are members of one of the world’s largest language communities. In many parts of the former Soviet Union, Russian has retained its function as the basic language of interethnic and interstate communication. despite the collapse of the unitary state.

The Russians outside Russia, moreover, like other diaspora communities, have family links and potential ethnic networks in other states. This may give them an advantage over local non-Russian competitors should they decide to engage in transborder trade or other kinds of international business. One of the causes of the current economic problems of the former Soviet republics is the severance of the tightly knit economic ties between the various parts of the unitary Soviet state. If Russian diaspora communities can contribute to the rebuilding of these links, it may be argued, this could promote the economic recovery of the entire region. By helping themselves, they would be of help to all parties involved.

Thus, both of these perspectives look at the Russian communities in the non-Russian Soviet successor states under the heading of "integration." In the first case, one examines the preconditions for social and political integration within states, and in the second case, the potential for regional integration or cooperation among the new states of the former Soviet Union. In both of these perspectives one may observe the interplay between three different actors, or what the American sociologist Rogers Brubaker has called "fields": the nationalizing state, the external national homeland (Russia), and the Russian diaspora communities themselves. A major difference between these perspectives, however, is that the first one tends to place the local Russians at the passive or receiving end of the action-reaction processes of diaspora politics. They are seen as a major bone of contention between the two state actors, being "protected," or "discriminated" against. In the second perspective, on the other hand, they are regarded as potentially active contributors to larger political processes in the post-Soviet region. To put it metaphorically: if in the first perspective the Russians in the non-Russian Soviet successor states are seen as being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, then in the second perspective they are pictured as potential bridges between states and cultures.

Most of the scholarly literature on the topic of the new Russian diaspora communities, including my own contributions, has focused on the first perspective: the Russians’ integration into the new nationalizing states or their discrimination in and alienation from these states. There are some very good reasons why this has been the case. The involved parties themselves – the Russian community leaders, Russian politicians in Russia, as well as the political authorities in their countries of residence – have all been preoccupied with this problem. It is highly sensitive, involving both symbolic issues with great emotional power, as well as very real if mundane interests of political and economic power. In this chapter, however, I attempt a first cut into the second problem, asking whether the presence of the large Russian diaspora communities influences the processes of interstate integration in the post-Soviet region. If it does, to what degree and in what ways does it do so? It should be noted that the Russian minorities in the former Soviet Union, by their behavior and actions or simply by their existence, may be a factor that not only promotes but also impedes or retards regional cooperation in the post-Soviet space.

The issue is approached from three different perspectives: (1) the political perspective as seen from Moscow; (2) the political perspective as seen from the new and newly independent states; and (3) a sociological perspective. The two first are based on statements and declarations of political leaders, while the last one assesses the potential for integration of the Russian diaspora communities based on an analysis of their numbers, qualifications, and orientations.

A. The background: Not one diaspora, but fourteen

The new Russian diaspora communities are far from homogeneous. Any talk of "a" or "the" new Russian diaspora in the singular is highly misleading. It would probably be more fruitful to see them as fourteen different diasporas, each with its own peculiar characteristics influenced by many factors, such as size (absolute, and relative to the total population in the state), ethnic cohesion, social composition, cultural distinctiveness (the cultural contrast to the dominant ethnic environment), the compactness of settlement, and rootedness in the area.

Some 12.5 million diaspora Russians, or roughly half of the total, live in the Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus (see Table 1). In this region, the cultural distance between the Russians and the titular nations is very short. With the partial exception of western Ukraine, hardly any Russians here have a feeling of living in an alien cultural milieu at all.

In the Baltic states large parts of the indigenous population claim that a yawning chasm separates their own culture from Russian culture, but the Russians themselves more often underline the common elements such as Europeanness and Christian faith that unite them. After the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR during World War II, the influx of Russians and other Russophones to the area was steep. In the course of four decades, the share of the titular nation in the total population dropped from 90 percent to 60 percent in Estonia and from 75 percent to 52 percent in Latvia. Many Balts feel that this demographic development is undermining the very basis of their separate cultures, and are determined to roll back Russian influence. The Russians, however, are already so numerous and so entrenched in society that this is a formidable task which can be accomplished only by exceptional measures, if at all. Only in Lithuania is the share of the Russians so low (around 9 percent) that they are not perceived as a serious challenge by the titular nation.

In Transcaucasia and the southern tier of Central Asia, Russian demographic penetration has historically been weak. In the 1989 census, the Russians’ share of the total population in all of these republics was below 10 percent (in Armenia as low as 1.6 percent); since that time, Russian communities in much of the region have been further depleted by out-migration. The Russian populace has been almost exclusively clustered in the larger towns and cities, particularly in the capitals, while the countryside has been dominated by the locals.

In Kazakhstan and to some degree also in Kyrgyzstan, the ethno-demographic situation is rather different from other parts of Central Asia. On the Kazakh steppe and in the Kyrgyz valleys, Russian peasants have been tilling the soil for generations. These are the only republics where rural dwellers make up substantial parts of the local Russian groups (23 percent and 30 percent, respectively). The Russian presence in urban areas is also very large. The 900,000 Russians in Kyrgyzstan made up more than 20 percent of the total population in the 1989 census; the 6 million Russians in Kazakhstan at that time constituted no less than 45 percent of the republic’s population. The vast majority of Kazakhstani Russians live in the northernmost parts of the country.

While there are large varieties among the various Russian diaspora communities there are also significant differences within each group. Some members of these communities have been living outside the ethnic Russian core area for generations, whereas others are recent immigrants. These newcomers are typically less able or willing to adapt to the alien ethnic environment. Their command of the titular language is usually poorer. Language proficiency among the Russian diasporians is also influenced by such factors as the complexity of the local language and the number of native speakers they meet in daily life, but even more, it seems, by such intangibles as the "prestige" the various languages carry. In the Soviet Union, European languages with long literary traditions had a higher status than Asian languages with recently established literary standards.

A. The view from Moscow

While the dominant diaspora discourse in Russia is one of victimization of the local Russians at the hands of the politically dominant titulars, occasionally voices are raised in Russian media that ask whether "the diaspora situation really ought to be regarded as a condition of suffering only." Some Russian political observers have suggested that the Russian communities abroad are valuable assets, of which the Russian state ought to make active use in its policy towards the other Soviet successor states. The earliest, most famous, and probably most intelligent version of this view was proposed by Sergei Karaganov, deputy head of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 1992 he outlined three scenarios for Russia’s relations with the other member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The first was full support for the consolidation of national statehood in all former Soviet republics. This policy Karaganov identified as the position of Russia’s radical democrats, but he dismissed it as unrealistic. Most of the new regimes, he believed, were too weak to survive, hence, this policy line would oblige Russia to prop up states that were constantly on the verge of disintegration.

Karaganov’s second scenario was "reintegration," which he also called "normal neoimperialism." While he regarded this policy as, in many respects, more promising than the first one, he nevertheless discarded it on similar grounds: it was unrealistic. Russia lacks both the means and the will to pursue such a policy, and in any case the outside world would not accept it. Thus, by default Karaganov was left with the third policy option, "partial integration of the former USSR within a more or less confederate framework." This policy would require Russia to play an active post-imperial role, in many ways similar to the policy of the tsars towards Russia’s hinterland in previous centuries: bribing local princes, dispatching troops to trouble-spots, rescuing threatened individuals, etc. "It is an ungrateful job, but our history, and to some extent we ourselves, have prepared it for us."

The Russian-speaking populations in the former Soviet republics are destined to play a pivotal role in this third and only realistic policy option, Karaganov maintained.

The Russian-speaking population is not simply a liability (passiv) but also a tremendous asset (aktiv) for Russia. Therefore, first of all we must do whatever we can to keep the Russian-speaking population in the regions. This is not only because we cannot allow an enormous wave of refugees, but also because we need to keep in place the levers of influence in a longer perspective. From the viewpoint of economic expediency Russia ought to launch a massive investment expansion. For this purpose we can exploit the enormous debt that most of the republics have accumulated [to Moscow], and buy up and take control over [local] enterprises. In this way we can acquire a mighty economic and political enclave on which we can base our political influence.

It should be noted that although Karaganov dismissed the second policy option, reintegration/neoimperalism, it continues to have its spokespersons in Russian politics. Leading proponents of this view are two lobby organizations, the Congress of Russian Communities and the Institute of the New Abroad. Both are strongly in favor of full or partial political restoration of the Soviet unitary state, which they also identify with Russian statehood of earlier centuries. They assign the Russian diaspora communities an important role in their strategies to achieve this goal.

The Congress of Russian Communities, or KRO by its Russian acronym, was established in Moscow in the spring of 1993 as an attempt to strengthen and coordinate the activities of the various Russian cultural and mutual aid organizations that already existed in the former Soviet republics. The initiative for the new organization ostensibly came from these local communities themselves, but from the very beginning it was clear that Moscow-based Russian politicians dominated the organization.

To a large extent KRO is the brainchild of the aspiring young politician Dmitrii Rogozin, who has served as its chairman from the very beginning. In a May 1994 Rogozin firmly expressed the belief that the borders of Russia will significantly expand and at a minimum come to include Belarus, Ukraine with Crimea, and Kazakhstan. "The time has come to pursue a tough policy in defense of our national interests, even national egotism. . . . This is geopolitics. Every mighty body pulls the smaller ones into its orbit." Such a development would also be beneficial for the non-Russians in the former Soviet Union, Rogozin asserted, since a union with Russia would raise their civilizational and material levels, as it did in the past.

The second world congress of Russian Communities, organized by KRO in Moscow in 1994, issued a "Declaration of Compatriots’ Rights" which stated that "the right to live in a unitary state is an inalienable right of every compatriot." "Compatriots" were defined as all persons who had been citizens of the USSR, who have not voluntarily renounced their Soviet citizenship, who are now permanently residing in the territory of the USSR, regard Russian as their native tongue, and see themselves as belonging to Russian civilization.

KRO argues that Russia, as the only recognized successor state of the USSR, is obliged to work towards political reunification of the entire post-Soviet space, if for no other reason, then at least to fulfill the compatriots’ right to live in a common state. In the spring of 1999 Rogozin presented the Duma with a draft law "On the national-cultural development of the Russian people," by which, if adopted, Russia would have recognized the Russians as a "divided people" entitled to reunification.

The other organization actively seeking reintegration is "The Institute of the New Abroad" – later renamed "The Institute of CIS Countries" and then "The Institute of Diaspora and Integration". It was established by Konstantin Zatulin in 1996. Zatulin had been chairman of the committee on relations with CIS countries in the fifth Duma, and when he failed to be reelected in 1995, his new institute provided him with another platform for participation in Russian politics.

Zatulin is in favor of a unified state in the territory of the former Soviet Union, preferably one that is organized as an empire. His institute has lambasted Russian diplomacy in the near abroad for "treacherously" ignoring the demands of the local Russian communities. A seminar that the institute organized on the Russian diaspora issue in May 1998 produced a comprehensive policy document that outlined an "historical mission for the Russian diaspora in the near abroad":

The contemporary Russian diaspora communities, by the very fact of their existence, defend the outer borders of Russia. They hold back, on the one hand, Islam (in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, and Kazakhstan), and on the other, the advance of NATO and other forms of Western aggression (in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltics). By turning its back on the compatriots abroad, Russia is in fact voluntarily abandoning its own resources and territorial interests.

The seminar suggested the formation of "networks of strong and vigorous diasporas, which are closely linked to strong Russian centers within Russia." Removed from Russia politically and economically, Russians in the near abroad may be united with Russia when they take upon themselves the role as its "cultural and educational outposts". The metaphor of "outposts" (forposty) is a military one, and this imagery leaves the impression that what goes on in the post-Soviet cultural field, is a kind of zero-sum game: the Russian diasporians represent the advanced parts of an army out on a mission to roll back the titular languages and cultures. Indeed, the same seminar report went on to state that "Russian educational and cultural centers [in the non-Russian republics]. . . provide possibilities to assimilate other cultures."

While Karaganov in his memorandum had scrupulously avoided any reference to Russians (russkie) in the ethnic sense in order to avoid the charge of ethnonationalism, consistently using instead the concept of "Russian-speakers," neither Rogozin nor Zatulin have the same qualms. Zatulin’s institute recommends that the Russian nation (russkaya natsiya) ought to aspire towards separate representation in the United Nations, alongside Russia’s membership, as a people deprived of but fighting for separate statehood. (The current Russian state, being a multinational federation, is not regarded as a Russian "national state" in the ethnic sense).

Given that some high-profile individuals and organizations in contemporary Russian politics do indeed see the Russian diaspora communities in the "near abroad" as an important factor in their schemes for closer cooperation in – or complete reintegration of – the post-Soviet space, it is perhaps a bit surprising to find that few of the ideas expressed by these groups are reflected in official Russian policy documents. While the Russian government certainly believes that it has a right, and a moral duty, to protect its "compatriots" in the "near abroad," the basic premise of its diaspora policy is that diaspora Russians ought to be integrated into their new homelands, and not be reunited with Russia by border revision, state reconstitution, or any other means. Closer cooperation among the new states of the former Soviet Union is certainly one of Russia’s most important foreign policy objectives, and this objective is clearly stated in all major Russian foreign policy documents. These same documents, however, almost completely ignore the issue of the diaspora. Thus, for instance, the "National Security Concept of the Russian Federation" issued in December 1997 singles out increased CIS integration as "a major factor facilitating the settlement of ethno-political and inter-ethnic conflicts, of maintaining social and political stability at Russia’s borders, and preventing, in the long run, centrifugal phenomena within Russia itself." The question is not even raised, however, whether the presence of millions of Russians in the other CIS states may in one way or another promote or retard this desired development. In a similar way, the foreign policy document "Russia’s Strategic Course In Relation To The CIS Member Countries," which was signed into force by Boris Yeltsin on September 14, 1995, is conspicuous for its lack of any mentioning of the diaspora’s integrative potential. It confines itself to note in one sentence that Russia shall "actively contribute to the adaptation of Russians (rossiyane) to the new political and socio-economic realities in the countries where they are permanently living."

This is not to say that Russia has no formulated policy on the diaspora. On the contrary, no less than three different official documents are specifically devoted to this topic. Two of them were issued by the Russian government: the "Main Directions of the State Policy of the Russian Federation towards Compatriots Living Abroad" was adopted in August 1994, and the "Action Program in Support of Compatriots Abroad" in May 1996. In November 1998 the Russian parliament also adopted a law on "The State Policy of the Russian Federation Towards Compatriots Abroad." These documents, however, are almost exclusively preoccupied with two issues: first, the problems the compatriots face in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) states in terms of political discrimination and social marginalization, and second, what Russia can do to help them. Whatever the authors of these documents think about the impact the diaspora Russians might have on state cooperation in the post-Soviet space must, for the most part, be inferred from a reading between the lines.

The "Main Directions" document declares that it is a priority objective of the Russian government to prevent a mass influx of compatriots from the near abroad to Russia since this, it is believed, may have a disruptive effect on the Russian economy, as well as being most painful for the migrants themselves. For that reason Russia will do its utmost to promote the voluntary integration of these compatriots into the political, social, and economic life of the newly independent states. The Russians are urged to adapt to the local culture while retaining their specific cultural identity. While this program, one would assume, ought to be compatible with the minority policy pursued by most Soviet successor states, the Russian authorities apparently have doubts about the readiness of the other states to work together towards this goal. The iron fist in the velvet glove is revealed in the following sentence: "Questions of financial, economic, social, and military-political cooperation between Russia and the individual states will be linked to the concrete policy they pursue regarding the rights and interests of Russians (rossiyane) living on their territory." Harsh measures against delinquent states, however, "will be executed only after a serious situational analysis, taking into consideration the interests of the people which they are intended to protect." Thus, in a sense, this document does link the Russian diaspora question to the issue of state cooperation between Russia and other CIS countries, but only in a negative and indirect way: rather than seeing the diaspora as a positive force for integration, as Karaganov did, the Russian government announces that negative treatment of the diaspora will adversely affect state cooperation.

The "Action program" of 1996 was basically a further elaboration of the 1994 policy document and introduced few new ideas. Consistent with the two governmental documents on the diaspora issue, the 1998 law declared that compatriots abroad should have the right to expect support from the Russian Federation, within the framework of international law, in the realization of their civil, political, social, and cultural rights. According to this law Russia shall, inter alia, do what it can to create the necessary conditions for the diaspora’s "active participation in the development of mutually beneficial relations between its state of residence and the Russian Federation." Here, finally is some evidence that the Russian state authorities assign the diaspora communities an active role in its policy towards the "near abroad." This piece of evidence, however, is too meager to avoid the conclusion that the various published Russian foreign policy documents, read together, leave the impression that Russia has, as it were, two separate policies: one for CIS integration and one for the "compatriots," with very few explicit links between them.

A. The Perspective from the Capitals of the New States

At the outset one would assume that the Russian diaspora issue affects the policy of the non-Russian FSU states at least as much as, if not more than, it influences Russia’s policy toward these states. Whether this factor will make them more or less disposed to closer state integration and cooperation, and whether they will see their Russian minorities as a asset or a threat, however, is impossible to determine a priori.

The state authorities in the non-Russian states might conclude that they can make use of their Russian citizens in the promotion of their state interests vis-à-vis Russia. This could take various forms: They could flash the "diaspora card" in order to extort economic concessions from Russia. For instance, whenever Russia demands that they pay their substantial arrears for Russian oil and gas deliveries, they may complain that these demands will lead to economic hardships which hit the Russian minority particularly hard. Russian politicians have occasionally asserted that they have been met with such assertions at the negotiating table, while the non-Russian state leaders predictably deny this. The leaders of the non-Russian new states can also adopt educational and cultural policies viewed as pro-Russian by Moscow and their local Russians, in order to curry favor with their big neighbor. They might also assign ethnic Russians whose loyalty they trust as ambassadors to Russia. These diplomats should know how to "deal with the Russians" and they would know the "Russian mentality" better than anybody else. In addition, they could be presented as living proof that Russians are politically well integrated in their new homelands.

Non-Russian state leaders might, on the other hand, see the local Russians as potential or actual "fifth columnists" or "Trojan horses" for undue Russian state influence and interference in their internal affairs. In that case they might try to marginalize and politically neutralize the local Russians as much as possible.

To date, few if any of the new states have availed themselves of the possibility to send ethnic Russians as ambassadors to Russia. This tendency is so universal that it can hardly be coincidental. Some countries – Kazakhstan, for instance – are deliberately making use of some "ethnic ambassadors", sending Poles, Germans, or Koreans, to their respective "external homelands" of Poland, Germany, or Korea. Thus, other factors, perhaps mistrust of the local Russians, apparently keep the new states from sending Russians to Russia. Local Russians are generally not employed in any other capacities either in an attempt to improve relations with Russia.

A perusal of the speeches and other public utterances of state leaders in the newly independent countries shows that they rarely make any reference to local Russians as a factor linking their country closer to Russia or to each other. Unsurprisingly, the Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka represents the most important exception to this rule. For example, at a conference on the prospects of a Eurasian Union in Moscow in January 1996, he said:

The Belarusian Republic will retain its social stability only as long as its relations with Russia develops on the basis of friendship and close cooperation. After all, very many Russians and representatives of other peoples of Russia are living in Belarus, and in a like manner many Belarusians have found their home, family, and Motherland in Russia.

Lukashenka seems to imply that if the Belarusian state distances itself from Russia, it will lose the loyalty of the local Russians who might stir up social turmoil. However, he goes on to deny that there are any major differences in the Belarusian population, culturally or politically, between the Russians and the titulars. "In our Belarus today it is difficult to ascertain who is a Russian and who is a Belarusian, and who is half and half." This high degree of commonality between the two national cultures is, according to Lukashenka, a factor that facilitates closer state integration.

State leaders in some other FSU countries, while avoiding any direct references to the Russians as a local ethnic community, nevertheless publicly agree with the Belarusian president that Russian culture is a strong unifying force in the post-Soviet space. Thus, the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who was the first to launch the idea of a Eurasian Union, declared in an important speech to the Kazakhstani Supreme Soviet in January 1994 that, "It is no secret to anyone that we Kazakhs study Russian culture and literature with great enthusiasm." Nazarbaev, however, did not link this observation to his Eurasian project and his grand vision for interstate integration, but used it instead to underpin his argument for interethnic integration within Kazakhstan.

Conversely, the spirit of our steppes penetrates deeply into everyone who lives in this republic and is attached to Kazakhstan in his heart. Therefore, we may talk about a common self-identification among all citizens in our country.

When discussing interstate integration in the CIS, Nazarbaev puts heavy emphasis on the cultural and ethnic uniqueness of each country:

It was I who formulated the idea of the Eurasian Union, which, alongside other issues, is intended to facilitate civilized solutions to interethnic as well as interstate problems and contradictions. . . . The integration of the peoples must proceed through the retention of the political independence and the ethnic uniqueness of each sovereign state.

In Ukraine, both of the first presidents after independence – Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma – promoted the consolidation of independent national statehood and each was wary of too close a rapprochement with Russia. On the other hand, the largest Ukrainian opposition party, the Communists, has championed the cause of closer integration with Russia. If any Ukrainian party could be expected to single out the Russian diaspora as a positive factor of state integration in the CIS, it would have to be the Communists who hanker back to "the good old days under the Soviet regime". However, the bulk of the party’s voters are not ethnic Russians, but Russified Ukrainians, and the party apparently does not want to be associated with the "Russian cause" in a narrowly ethnic sense. Thus, its party program does not mention the 10-million-strong Russian community in Ukraine at all, but focuses instead on the Russian language, which, according to the Ukrainian Communists, ought to be given a status as a "state language" on a par with Ukrainian.

It may be noted that none of the various bilateral treaties between Russia and other post-Soviet states which have been concluded over the last years make any explicit mention at all of the large Russian diaspora communities and certainly not as a factor of state cooperation. This omission, however, should not be surprising: the titular nations of the new states are not given any special attention either in any of these documents, which instead refer to "the people of Russia" and "the people of [the other contracting country]."

While none of the non-Russian Soviet successor states have assigned the Russian diaspora communities any important role in their bilateral relations with Russia, it seems clear that the diaspora issue is treated rather differently in many of them. Some apparently see the local Russians are more threatening than do others. Up to a point, these differences in perceptions and attitudes may be traced back to economic, demographical and geographical factors. States with strong economies, a low share of Russians in the population, located far away from Russia may take a more relaxed stance than poorer neigboring countries which fear that Russia may try to use their large Russian communities as Troyan horses.

Some differences along these lines became apparent in 1993-94 when Russia was pushing very hard for the conclusion of

A The sociological perspective

The behavior of the diaspora Russians is hardly affected much by their being mentioned or omitted from official documents or political speeches. Whether they will continue to promote Russian language and culture in the Soviet successor states by buying Russian books and newspapers or by sending their children to Russian language schools will be determined by other factors. They do not have to sit back waiting for a government support program to be launched before they engage themselves in CIS interstate trade. As is the case for most people, they actions will be geared towards a betterment of their own private lives. Usually they will be interested in and actively contribute to greater state cooperation in the FSU space only insofar as they can benefit from it personally. Thus I assess some of the economic and cultural factors influencing the diasporians themselves towards cooperation.

B. Economy

Several factors suggest that many diaspora Russians are likely to engage in transnational business in the post-Soviet space. It is generally assumed that since Russians are often excluded from top jobs in most of the new states, they will tend to look for other sources of livelihood, such as business. To the degree that they do so, many of them may be expected to engage in interstate business among the Soviet successor states, since they are likely to possess three qualities that give them a competitive advantage over others engaged in the same kind of business: superior communication skills, more personal contacts, and greater knowledge.

1. Superior communication skills.

In the Communist period, non-Russians Soviet citizens often were proficient in a higher number of languages than were the Russians. Since Russian was the language which every Soviet citizen had to learn, all career-oriented non-Russians were fluent in it, and at the same time retained a command of the traditional language of their own ethnic group. For the Russians, however, the situation was different. They could get away with learning only one language, Russian, even when they were living in a non-Russian republic. Some of them, it is true, took the effort to learn also the local language, but the percentage who did was generally very low, and in the Asian republics it was absolutely negligible (See table 1.)

However, after the dismantling of the unitary state, the language pattern in many republics is being reversed. In the Baltic countries, in particular, hardly any titulars are sending their children to Russian-language educational institutions anymore, and Russian is no longer taught as a subject in most titular schools. Even Balts who attended Soviet schools in their youth are rapidly forgetting, or suppressing, their proficiency in the Russian language. Meanwhile, the Russians are being pressured to learn the new state language of their country of residence. Thus, as the "new bilinguals" they can function as bridges to Russia and to other post-Soviet states where Russian remains a language of commerce and "interethnic communication."

The value of this language skill, however, may not be great. The Russians may have the greatest language advantages in the Baltic states, but because the Baltic states have already gone a long way to reorient their economies away from the post-Soviet market towards the West, this is also the region where such bilingualism will be least valuable. Conversely, those post-Soviet states that have not experienced a similar westernization of their economy are also the ones where the titular elites have retained a good command of the Russian language themselves and do not need any interpreters, translators or middlemen.

2. Better personal contacts

Russians in the non-Russian republics tend to have denser networks of family members, acquaintances, and former colleagues in the other republics than will the members of the titular nation. These contacts will be an asset if and when the economy and social institutions of their country of residence are interwoven with the economy and social institutions of the other former Soviet republics.

However, there is nothing much to be gained by being a "bridge" to another country if there is no traffic across it. Therefore, much depends on the economic development in the post-Soviet region in general and in Russia in particular. While restoration of the links between the former Soviet republics may be a means to boost the economy of the entire region, this process is not likely to get going without at least a slight recovery. Without such a recovery it is not just the Baltic states that will try to orient their economic, cultural, and social contacts westwards as much as possible (and in the case of the Central Asian states, also southwards and eastwards). After August 1997, most experts on Russian and other post-Soviet economies have deferred any predicted recovery many years, if not decades, away.

The current depression in the post-Soviet region has very definite implications for contacts among the new states on the social level. The formidable travel and transportation costs among the former Soviet republics contribute to the new states’ greater isolation from each other. The financial costs of maintaining contact with family members and friends living in other republics have to many individuals become almost prohibitive. After the skyrocketing of the prices of plane tickets a former Soviet citizen in, say, Ukraine, who used to visit regularly with relatives in the Far East, in Kazakhstan, and in Murmansk, no longer can afford such a luxury.

Also other aspects of the post-Soviet economies work to the disadvantage of the diaspora Russians. Several of the new states have retained a basically state-regulated economy that favors those actors who have tied to the political establishment. Since the politically influential institutions in the non-Russian states tend to be filled up with titulars, this situation is disadvantageous to the Russians. Their "bridges" may perhaps have a strong foundation in Russia, but lack a similarly strong basis in their country of residence.

The structure of post-Soviet trade pattern is also unfavorable to the Russians. The staple export products of many Union republics to Russia were and are agricultural commodities. As ingrained urbanites, the Russians in the former Soviet Union–with a partial exception for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan–have traditionally not been engaged in the raising of livestock and cultivation of crops. Food production and also the transport and sale of such products have in most non-Russian republics traditionally been the domain of the titulars. This is true of such diverse countries as Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

3. Professional skills

The remaining advantages, then, is the superior knowledge and professional skills of the Russians compared to the local population in general. Russians in the former Soviet republics have traditionally enjoyed an edge over the titulars in this respect, often a considerable one. The Russians who migrated from the Russian core area towards the periphery of the Soviet state were often those who were best educated. Experts on comparative diaspora sociology have noted that diaspora groups tend to have a "passion for knowledge" and put a high premium on formal education. Many of them are thus likely to keep up their high levels of education and intellectual skills.

However, these assets have little to do with national or ethnic culture and do not necessarily orient the Russians towards Russia. These qualities make them capable of swimming in any water, and perhaps even to swim better in the European waters than the titular groups in their country of residence. And in fact, several surveys over the last years show that Russians in Estonia and Latvia are generally more enthusiastic about integration into European political structures than are the ethnic Latvians and Estonians. The reasons for these differences of orientations are no doubt very complex, and not the same for all individuals. Many Russians clearly hope that EU membership will restrain some of the most glaring ethnocentric aspects of the nation-building in Latvia and Estonia. They may feel that they have less to lose in a European melting pot, in terms of a unique and endangered culture, than do the titulars. In any case, we can conclude that the strong and the ambitious among the Russian diaspora communities in the "near abroad" do not necessarily lift the standard of Soviet nostalgia or post-Soviet integration.

Some observers expect that Russians in many former Soviet republics will not necessarily conform to the general diaspora trend of keeping up high levels of education. As more and more Russian high schools are closed down in Latvia, for instance, it is feared that an increasing number of Russian children will choose not to pursue any intermediate education at all, rather than attend Latvian schools. In some FSU countries, the local Russian labor force may to an increasing degree be relegated to blue collar jobs. Contributing to this trend is the fact that for those local Russians who do belong to the (usually technical) intelligentsia, it will usually be easier to find new jobs in another country (Russia or in the West), and they may therefore choose to emigrate.

B. Culture and sentiments

While I believe that the individual diaspora members’ personal interests and private cost-benefit calculations are most important to regional cooperation, I do not dismiss altogether the impact of culture, sentiments, and ideals. No doubt, many Russians feel that "living in a Russian cultural space, or keeping strong links to Russia, is a top priority objective quite irrespective of the direct benefits."




In 1988-89 members of the Russophone communities in many parts of the Soviet Union reacted against the budding sovereignty movements in the republics by establishing a network of organizations aimed at the preservation of the unitary state. This network was the first concerted attempt to organize the Russian diasporas in defense of what they perceived as their interests and rights, but at this time they did not rally under ‘Russian’ banners. Instead, these pro-Soviet organizations were called ‘international movements’ and ‘international fronts’ (for short, ‘interfronts,’) to underscore their all-embracing, anti-nationalist programs.


As these interfronts and -movements in the various republics were often confronted with very similar challenges, one would perhaps expect to find a high degree of coordination among them. This, however, was not the case, not even with regard to the three Baltic republics, in which the interfronts seemed to be best organized. Anatol Lieven remarks that ‘oddly, although the three movements had precisely the same objectives, there was relatively little co-operation between them, and leaders in Latvia, for example, were often surprisingly ignorant of developments in the other two republics–probably because they all looked first to Moscow for help and instruction.’



When the Soviet Union collapsed the interfronts had signally failed to achieve their objectives. Gradually other kinds of diaspora organizations sprang to life, such as Russian societies (obshchiny) or ‘cultural centers’. Such organizations were supposed to cater to the cultural, social, and material needs of their members. Sometimes, but not always, they also presented themselves as vehicles for the promotion also of the political interests of the Russophones.

Some of the politically active Russophone organizations placed themselves in the political center while others evolved towards the extreme right (occasionally the extreme left). The centrist organizations tended to see the national political scene in their respective countries of residence as their main arena of activity, and were only marginally interested in close ties with like-minded organizations in the neighboring states. Such groups typically avoided narrowly ethnic names and slogans, seeing themselves as champions of the rights of all Slavs/Europeans/non-titulars in the country, rather than of the Russians only.

For Russian diaspora organization with sympathies on the extreme right/left, however, the former Soviet Union remained their main arena of action. The inclusion of the word Russian (russkii) in their name often signaled that they mobilized under nationalistic banners and some of them consciously cultivated close links to like-minded organizations in Moscow. In time, many of these groups became affiliated with the Congress of Russian Societies, KRO, discussed above.

As had been the case with the interfronts, their contacts among themselves were often extremely weak. This was true not only of links among organizations in different countries, but often also within states. Thus, for instance, Russian activists in the Russophone regions of Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine in 1992-94 took scant notice of what their counterparts in the other region were up to. When asked about this lack of cooperation, they will maintain that political conditions in the two parts of the country are radically different and being associated with Russophone activists in other parts of the country would be likely to discredit their own cause. These arguments, a fortiori, seem to weigh against any close cooperation across national borders.

Today, it is possible to find one or more Russian organization linked to a post-Soviet network headquarted in Moscow in practically all Soviet successor states. This, however, does not prove that the Russian diaspora communities at large are actively engaged in regional cooperation among themselves. The high number of such organizations is in itself not a sign of their strength, paradoxically, the opposite may the case. The proliferation of their numbers is often the result of schisms and fissures within their ranks. As a result of constant infighting and squabbles many of these organizations have become sapped of resources and have also lost authority and respect among the local diaspora community. As one expert on Russians in Central Asia remarks, ‘Our data show that in Kyrgyzstan the Russophone population is poorly informed in the extreme about the organizations that are established in their country and, even more importantly, they are—not without reason—very negatively disposed towards their activities’. Also a number of Western researchers have commented upon the weaknesses of these organizations and their failure to rally the local Russian communities under their banners. With many chiefs and very few Indians these Russian diaspora organizations often do not represent anybody but themselves.

To be sure, a reservoir of Soviet nostalgia among the Russian diaspora communities does exist. This is often pointed out by titular politicians in former Soviet republics who do not trust the loyalty of the local Russian residents towards the new state. Diaspora Russians who have taken Russian citizenship have, indeed, tended to support restorationist parties such as Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s party in the 1993 Duma elections, and the Communist party of the Russian Federation in the 1995 elections. However, such people have often chosen to take Russian rather than the local citizenship precisely because of their pro-Soviet or pro-Russian sympathies, and are therefore unlikely to vote for a party like Yabloko that advocates the political and social integration of the Russian diaspora into their respective countries of residence. In any case, only a very small fraction of the Russian diasporians have opted for Russia citizenship.

The most immediate and direct effect of Russian diasporians taking Russian citizenship and voting for restorationist parties in Moscow is to provide grist to the anti-Russian nationalist mill in their countries of residence. A much more effective alternative would be to take local citizenship and to work through local parties that promote stronger regional integration in the post-Soviet space. This strategy, of course, presupposes the existence of a genuine multiparty system in their country of residence. This cannot be taken for granted in all of the new states, particularly not in the southern ones. However, in countries with genuine party pluralism like Latvia, Ukraine, and Moldova some such parties have come to life and done reasonably well at the polls.

In the three Baltic states the perception of the Russians as agents and henchmen of Communist power in the Soviet period enjoys wide currency. As I have argued elsewhere, this stereotype idea does not stand up to closer scrutiny: the vast majority of the Russians arrived in the Baltics as ordinary job seekers in what was then universally regarded as a common labor market. Such perceptions are nevertheless important factors to be reckoned with, and in Latvia and Estonia they seem to influence the attitudes of the titulars towards the Russians to a high degree. Under such circumstances there seems to be little the local Russians can do to promote greater cooperation with Russia, without at the same time confirming prevailing preconceived ideas about them among a large part of the titular population. In these countries, therefore, the social integration of the local Russians and their active promotion of greater cooperation with Russia seem to work at cross-purposes.

A. Conclusion

It is clear that the Russian diaspora issue does not figure prominently in most debates on subregional state cooperation in the post-Soviet space. This is true of the Russian public discourse and even more of the discourses in the non-Russian successor states. Only a handful of often rather aggressive Russian restorationists link the diaspora issue directly to the topic of interstate integration and treat them together.

The fact that most actors ignore the possible impact the Russian diasporas might have on post-Soviet state integration does not, of course, by itself mean that they do not take it into account. Since right-wing Russian politicians have nearly monopolized the issue, it has in the popular perception become intimately linked to programs for Russian hegemonism and state expansion. The notion that active Russian diaspora communities might contribute to interstate integration in the post-Soviet space a positive way has been squeezed out of the debate.

If Russian authorities do have any plans for the Russian diaspora communities, perhaps hoping to use them to promote Russian state interests in the neighboring states or to boost the sluggish integration processes in the CIS, they are sensible to keep quiet about them. Even if these designs are of the most benevolent kind, such as using the Russians as cultural ambassadors for "the language and Pushkin and Dostoevsky," any statement to this effect could provoke all kinds of suspicions and misinterpretations. The more the Russian diasporas are publicly touted as agents of post-Soviet state integration, the less they will be in a position to fill this role.

The virtual absence of the Russian diaspora from most debates on regional cooperation may, however, have a very straightforward and prosaic explanation: that it is irrelevant. Some of the stronger qualities of the Russian diasporians do not necessarily predispose them for integration and many of their assumed assets are more apparent than real. Even if the vast majority of them are genuinely interested in closer post-Soviet integration, they have failed to convince anyone that they are able to organize collectively and act effectively. Politically, they are already thoroughly marginalized in most of the successor states, while in their country of residence the culture they represent is often either in decline, distrusted as the culture of the former occupant, or both.


Table 1. Russians in the Soviet Successor States, 1989



In thousands

Percentage of total population in republic

Percentage of non-titular population in republic

Percentage of Russians living in urban settlements

Percentage of Russians claiming fluency in titular language




























































































Sources: Natsional’nyi sostav naseleniya SSSR (Moscow: Finansy i statistika, 1991), in Yu. V. Arutyunyan, ed., Russkie. Etnosotsiologicheskie ocherki (Moscow: Nauka, 1992), p. 25.