Valeri Chechelashvili, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
Almost 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Addressing the Russian Federal Assembly on April 25, 2005, Vladimir Putin described the event as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” Many experts and politicians were outraged by this sentiment. There was a reason for this outrage – the USSR nostalgia was clearly implied in the context. Unlike the Russian leadership, no one wanted to return to the USSR, even including Russia’s most “loyal allies.” This outrage intensified after the famous speech of the President of the Russian Federation at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007. Experts and politicians started to talk about the dual interpretation of the norms and principles of international law and, consequently, the growing imminent threat emanating from Russia, primarily in relation to neighboring countries. This threat soon manifested – aggression was perpetrated against Georgia in August 2008, leading to the occupation of one-fifth of the country (Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region), and in the spring of 2014, a war started against Ukraine followed by the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
What was the USSR? Why does its disappearance give the Kremlin residents such phantom pains? And how does the term “post-Soviet space” serve their interests? How does it reinforce the illusions about a broken empire?
To begin with, the USSR was neither Soviet, nor Socialist, nor for the Republics, nor a Union. It was a classic form of totalitarian state where power belonged to a group of people united in the Communist Party. More precisely, this comprised a few individuals who were members of the Politburo. Decisions were made behind closed doors. A strict vertical system of the execution of decisions was in place. Questions never arose during the enforcement process since a punitive mechanism was activated in such a case. Election was fiction. No body of candidates ran in elections. There was only one candidate – and he usually won by 99.99% of the electorate’s votes. Councils, executive committees, ministries and government agencies at various levels formulated decisions and reported to the party bodies on their implementation progress. The first secretary of the party’s regional committee decided all matters. His request to a judge for a hearing or a judgment was tantamount to an order. Similar rules applied for editors on the matter of publishing material. The appropriate rules were applied to higher levels as well. They were the main constitutional norm. Article 6 of the 1977 Constitution of the USSR stated that: “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union is the nucleus of the leading and ruling force of Soviet society, its political system, state and public organizations. The SUCP exists for the people and serves the people. (It should be noted that through the Constitution of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, which was to be adopted on the basis of this Constitution, the Empire tried to abolish the status of Georgian as the state language in Georgia in the spring of 1978 although this was thwarted by the National Movement). Hence, the Communist Party (there was no other party in the legal space) led and managed the process while the government and administrative bodies followed its instructions. Another confirmation of this rule was the practice of approving the country’s main economic document – the five-year plan for the development of the national industry which was approved at the congress of the Communist Party. Usually, such congresses were also held once every five years.
Thus, the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state in which power belonged to a group of individuals whose legitimacy could not withstand any criticism. That is why the term “post-Soviet space” is improper and harmful. The term “post-totalitarian space,” which is also used by experts (unfortunately, less frequently) more adequately reflects the reality of the past. It shows the nature of the ruined empire with great precision as well as the situation in which most of the states that appeared on the world map after the collapse of the USSR find themselves today.
We have already provided arguments about the past. As for the present, some countries of the “post-totalitarian space” have already established a functioning democracy. These are Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It is logical that the standard of living in these countries is qualitatively higher even as compared to Russia. In 2019, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was USD 17,836 in Latvia, USD 19,455 in Lithuania, USD 23,660 in Estonia and USD 11,585 in Russia. A full consensus was reached in the Baltic states on the totalitarian nature of the USSR. Sections of the Russian minority are a small exception.
Three countries – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – are trying to build functional democracies and become part of the European space. They have already shown the ability to transfer power through elections (hopefully, deepening and strengthening this tendency is irreversible) which is a necessary criterion for democracy. Unfortunately, from time to time, the features of totalitarianism appear in these countries as well. However, these trends are not dominant.
The next thesis will probably be the subject of criticism but I will still allow myself to express the opinion that a full-fledged totalitarian state has not been established in the “post-totalitarian space” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although a few are rapidly “progressing” in this direction and have almost reached this goal. First and foremost, of course, is Russia which naturally has a strong influence on the entire region. Some authoritative scholars even argue that the Kremlin is successfully building a totalitarian system with elements of fascism. We must acknowledge the persuasiveness and consistency of the set of arguments presented by them.
In conclusion, we might say that the term “post-Soviet space” appeals to false notions and contributes to the formation of erroneous feelings. The term “post-totalitarian space” is more accurate. Some analysts may argue that sections of this space have signs of totalitarianism or that some states have already established themselves as totalitarian. Of course, this point view has a right to exist. However, this logic does not contradict the main proposition – it is time to end the practice of using the term “post-Soviet space.”