Why Are We Drifting Apart?

27 october 2013

The Dialectics of Integration and Disintegration

Alexander Iskandaryan is Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, Armenia.

Resume: In ten to fifteen years from now the generation of the elites that grew in the Soviet Union and that shares the same culture codes and the ability to communicate with each other like people of one country, and not like foreigners, will begin to leave the stage.

The paradigm of modernity, which implies the existence of nation states as the groundwork of political world order, often looks obsolete these days or at least out of fashion, despite its etymology. The originally successful attempt to pour new wine into old wineskins did not help: starting from a certain point both Europe and the Americas began to regard as the basis of nation states not ethnicity, but rather ways of people’s self-organization irrespective of their ethnic or cultural background, race or religion. However, even this dramatic transformation has not made the modernity vision of politics less outdated. Today it is contrasted with the postulate that the contemporary world is moving towards globalization, internationalization and cosmopolitanization of everything around – from decision making in politics and the economy to the mechanisms of cultural interaction.

That the role of nation states has been dwindling and ever more powers are being delegated to the supra-national level (the EU and the Council of Europe are examples) is an almost universally accepted axiom today. It has long spread far beyond the agenda of debates in purely scholarly, academic quarters to newspaper headlines and Opinion columns. “The world is uniting” is a catchphrase that can be heard now in various languages in different parts of the world. It is quite popular in the post-Soviet space, too. However, this is the first part of the formula, while the other part of it is not always said aloud and sometimes even remains in the shadow, but it is unmistakably present and may sound like “but we are drifting apart” or “but you are drifting apart.”

Yet the first part of the formula is wrong, because it contradicts the hard facts. Globalization is not as global as it might seem at first sight. Outside the “golden billion” nation states keep emerging in an explosive fashion – Bangladesh, South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovakia. The very same phenomena that Western Europe saw in the 17th through the early 20th century are taking place around the world these days. Ever more nations with their own modern equivalents of Alsace-Lorraine, Sudetenland, Silesia, Trieste and the Danzig Corridor continue to crop up. Many of these processes are still far from completion. Whether Kurdistan or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, let alone such problem countries as Somalia and Afghanistan, will exist in the 22nd century, if at all, and if yes, in what configuration, is anyone’s guess. A resident of Brussels in the 15th century surely was unable to predict what state his city would be part of in five hundred years – Burgundy or Belgium. Strictly speaking, history could have taken a different turn.

These days ethnic cleansing, population exchanges and even acts of genocide remain part and parcel of the gigantic process of nation-state building, which is afoot everywhere and proceeds in an almost identical manner, as if all those nation-state building nationalists have had too much of Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism. Separation is not the sole trend, of course. Reverse processes, or attempts to launch them do happen, too. But as a rule the essence of such mergers and separations is much the same. Mainland China’s takeover of Hong Kong and Macao, the reunification of South Vietnam and North Vietnam and the emergence of one Yemen all heralded the emergence of nation states. Similarly, the unification of Germany under Bismarck was not a manifestation of post-modernity or cosmopolitanism. Nobody in the world has any doubts that if and when North Korea collapses, it will merge with the southern part of the peninsula, and not, say, with Japan or China, like East Germany united with West Germany, and not with Poland.


The postulate “the whole world is uniting” is very wrong not just because the facts point to the contrary. Actually, it refers not to the mathematical majority of countries and peoples, but only to that part of the world which the theory’s advocates describe as a model one (and which positions itself as a template to be replicated elsewhere). Consequently, the phrase “the world is uniting but we are drifting apart” means something like “The most successful part of humanity is getting away from the model of nation states to more advanced forms of cooperation, but we fail to do so because we are worse.” In other words, the assumption that nation states are backward and globalization is very desirable blends with the paradigm of political transit: all people around the world gradually move through approximately the same development stages, and the countries outside of Europe and North America are just lagging behind.

However far-fetched and abstract, this transit paradigm has been learned well by representatives of the “backward” and “advanced” segments of the world. The problem is it rests upon modernistic nation-state building ideas. This is well seen in the effects of its implementation in practice. “The whole-world-is-uniting” postulate in practical terms is interpreted as follows: “We, backward outsiders, must become advanced ones first, then we shall be able to unite.” In terms of social institutions and forms of state governance we should become what the Western countries had been before unification – successful nation states. But these have gone old-fashioned already – the whole world is uniting, isn’t it? But is it possible to build a successful nation state knowing in advance that it is an outdated form of statehood, falling behind the requirements of the day? If not, how can we become advanced?

Inside the scientific community, the ideas of transit, let alone “backwardness,” are not quite politically correct, because to many researchers such universalistic models look primitive in principle. For instance, as Ulrich Beck remarks, universalism is “provincial because it falsely absolutizes the path-dependent scope of experience and expectation in Western European and American modernization, thus distorting the sociological view of its particularity.”

Moreover, it is unclear whether Euro-integration should be regarded as a natural consequence of modernization or a counter-trend to modernity. In other words, is it possible to interpret the emergence of certain instruments, such as the Schengen Agreement or the European Court, as a result of a successful phase of nation-state building or, on the contrary, as evidence of an urgent need for supra-national institutions and forms of cooperation after the horrors of the two world wars made the reconciliation of various national projects possible.The European Union had an analogue in history, and in the very same region. It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the last phase of its existence, which presumably can be even regarded as the EU’s forerunner. That empire collapsed leaving no chance to see what it might eventually evolve into. One must admit that very few in those days saw Austria-Hungary as a model for the whole of humanity to follow; in the eyes of contemporaries it was just a distinctive path of development of one specific empire. Whatever the case, the question whether the stage of modernity may be skipped to achieve the same end result remains open.

Besides, target-setting here is not quite obvious. It is impossible to pass judgment on the process while staying inside the process proper. The European Union is still an experiment not ever staged anywhere else. It is too early to say whether it will be successful or not, let alone to predict if it will be possible or reasonable to stage it elsewhere. But it is worth asking the question why any attempts at integration have so far reached nowhere in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Was “backwardness” or insufficient modernization the reason? And in general, what basic conditions are to be recreated first to reproduce the experiment? Attempts “to become like others” may lead to various results. The processes described as Westernization may last for centuries. As the experience of Russia and Turkey indicates, they change societies but fail to yield the expected result. The result is a different Russia and a different Turkey, but not another Holland or France.

Even the admission of new member-countries to the EU – not Somalia or Afghanistan, of course, but Bulgaria and Romania – causes tensions inside the European project. Even if these countries are Europeanized with huge financial infusions and political efforts, it will take several decades under the most favorable circumstances. Conversely, the successful example of East Germany’s fast integration illustrates the triumph of the modernization idea: “one nation – one state.” “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are one people”) was the slogan of that revolution, and the fall of the Berlin Wall became its symbol. At least for Germans it was a wall between two Germanies, and not between two Europes.

Let us imagine now, in defiance of all contradictions and doubts, that we do believe in the model of a united Europe and in the possibility of and the need for everybody else to carry out “catch-up” development. Then many more questions arise. Is it possible to become “advanced” by exerting some conscious efforts? Who has already succeeded in traversing this path, or at least in making headway, and why? How much time will it take? And what will happen to those we are trying to catch up with – will they freeze where they are to wait for us, or will it be the ever-lasting Achilles-tortoise race?


To discuss this subject it would be convenient to take some specific example. The former Soviet Union is almost ideal for that purpose for several reasons. First, because the people that populated it have existed in a common political space for quite a long period of time – from 130 to 500 years. Second, that association was a very robust one. There existed one state. Importantly, for the last 70 years, it was a totalitarian state which exercised iron-hand rule to create unified mechanisms of governance and matrixes of social and cultural realities across its entire space. Third, it fell apart just recently and the people who grew up in that state and displayed their potential are still alive and many of them are in good shape. Fourth, because the unification paradigm is rather strong in the post-Soviet space, at least at the discourse level. Even among those who do not seek a reunification the feeling of nostalgia for the ruined past is good style.

The creation of the USSR is a classical example of how political projects may materialize precisely the other way round, contrary to the wishes of their brain fathers and ardent followers. The Russian Empire fell apart overnight. Over just a couple of years there emerged some primary configurations of various proto-state projects – from the very exotic LitBel association of Lithuania and Belarus and the United Mongol State to Armenia and Ukraine fighting wars along their perimeter borders. The Civil War was interpreted by Soviet historians as a war between various social groups (by tradition it continues to be described in the same terms today). In reality it was also (if not in the first place) a war among nations, proto-nations, ethnic groups and religious and cultural conglomerates.

The political project of the White Guard – “United and indivisible Russia” – in reality worked for the collapse of Russia, because its main slogan alone caused practically all non-Russian elites and ordinary members of other ethnic groups to rise in revolt. Conversely, the Bolsheviks, who professed the right to any ethnic, cultural and other freedoms and self-determination including secession, in their first years in power were genuinely pressing for a world revolution that would spread far beyond the bounds of one individual country and in that way they worked for the preservation of the empire. The USSR was in fact a reincarnation of the Russian Empire, albeit a very bizarre and special one, which Stalin would eventually supply with all sorts of proper attributes, starting from symbols, such as the restoration of officers’ shoulder straps and other insignia in the armed forces to Russian cult historical figures, who began to be worshiped as national ones.

Only the Poles and the Finns managed to escape. In the Russian Empire both were analogues of Austro-Hungarian nations and enjoyed the most developed national movements and mythologies, let alone formal autonomies. Another empire which collapsed at about the same time was the Ottoman Empire, which failed to recreate itself. In contrast to Russia’s Bolsheviks with their “self-determination-including-the-right-to-secession” rhetoric, Turkey had Kemalists, whose project was nationalist, not social. Kemalists looked very much like Bolsheviks in social and cultural terms, but their nationalism left no chance for the Ottoman Empire to survive. It was the Young Turks themselves who ruined their own Ottomanism, and the preservation of exclusively Turkic-populated areas and the ethnic leveling of the population was a logical outcome. Some were killed or forced to flee for life and others were assimilated. There opened up an opportunity to continue along the path of creating a nation state, which Turkey is today – if one turns a blind eye to the Kurdish problem, of course.

The same would have been in Russia, if new statehood had been established only in Russian-populated areas, if an ultra-nationalist, and not the Bolshevist project, had gained the upper hand. The Bolsheviks offered much more, and their plan was translated into reality. There could be no similarity to Kemalism or the collapse witnessed in Austria-Hungary. The Bolsheviks sought to recreate a common space and at first hoped to even expand it, while non-Russian ethnic elites were too weak to resist that. At first, there emerged an empire of “positive discrimination” – for approximately the first fifteen years of Soviet Russia’s existence. Then it evolved into a modernization workshop that would be forging political proto-nations for many subsequent years and up to the present day. This process is still on, although in the newly-founded independent states.

Nation-state building processes were underway in the Russian Empire, too, but they were extremely uneven. By virtue of history and geography, Russia incorporated a great variety of communities, which possibly made it the most diversified continental empire of all. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were basically far more homogenous. As for maritime empires, such as Great Britain or France, they could afford the luxury of not creating an integral political entity in their entire territory. This is precisely the reason why they introduced elements of democracy in the territories of the metropolitan states, without spreading them to the colonies. This explains why they pulled out of the colonies with relative ease, without much harm to their identity. In the meantime, Russia was a home for hunters and collectors, nomadic tribes, peasant farmers adhering to primordial agricultural lifestyles, and booming urban communities.

Federalization, at least formal and at least at the initial phase until the imperial state’s new shape hardened, was the sole means of keeping that space under unified control during and after the Civil War. The emergence of the Soviet Union, with its quite remarkable search for optimal internal and perimeter borders, the arrangement of intricate asymmetric hierarchies of territories and ethnic groups, the “vivisection” of some territories and cultures and the unification of others – has been described well enough, yet it requires further studies, of course. Each individual case of creating (or not creating) ethnic-territorial entities, of delimiting borders and determining administrative levels is thrilling, quite often surrealistic (for instance, the Karelo-Finnish and Jewish autonomies), but all of them possess some common quality that is of great interest: the Soviet Union’s territorial entities were always formed and built on the ethnic-cultural principle.

In some embryonic forms that principle had existed in the Russian Empire too, as formal and informal exceptions, such as the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Ostsee General Governorship, the North Caucasus and the Emirate of Bukhara. However, in the USSR it was formalized and became universal. The whole country was cut into quasi-ethnic domains. The prefix “quasi” has to be used because real administration remained centralized and was carried out through structures that had very little to do with that territorial arrangement. Nevertheless, the population began to develop mental maps; ethnic identities grew stronger and quite often were created anew, languages were codified, written literary texts were created on their basis, and certain systems of standards for cultures were devised. For instance, the titular ethnic group of an autonomous republic was entitled to having a teachers’ training institute and a drama theater, and each union republic had its own Academy of Sciences and an opera house. The very term “titular people” was quite significant – it was not the people that necessarily made up a majority in this or that union or autonomous republic, but the one that lent its name to it. In fact, it was the “master of the domain” which enjoyed corresponding privileges.

That was classical nation-state building. There where there were no nations, they were created and even suitable names were invented for them on the basis of local traditions and features. The emergence of ethnic elites and national self-determination ideologies was the natural outcome. By the 1960s, in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death and the general easing of the regime, there began to crop up political institutions of nationalism – their hard-line varieties in the dissident underground and somewhat milder versions among intellectuals. Besides, nationalism (in the political sense) began to manifest itself among the officially recognized artistic and scientific intellectual quarters, and even inside the Communist elites.After Stalin’s death, the political elite of Soviet nations gained certain stability and began to move further towards the idea of the greatest possible autonomy from the Moscow elite. The beginning of the Soviet Union’s breakup should probably be dated back to the 1960s and 1970s. It was at that time that the core-periphery migration paradigm of the Slav peoples began to give way to a reverse periphery-core trend. Under Russia’s previous 500-year-old colonization model Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians had been moving from the center to the periphery. Now they started coming back. The return of ethnic Russians to Russia – which looked very much like a force-majeure phenomenon during the breakup of the USSR – had begun much earlier. Obviously, the Slav population and all other non-titular ethnic groups began to feel uncomfortable in regions where their fathers and grandfathers had settled once. The homogenization of ethnic domains was well underway. Ethnic groups that had already got accustomed to their role of titular nations now became state nations. By virtue of the whole previous logic, the process was to cross a certain borderline sooner or later and to proceed further towards the creation of political identities.

It would be odd to expect the mergence of some supra-ethnic or non-ethnic communities, such as a Far Eastern or a Urals republic, in a situation like that. True, there were some extravagant projects of that kind, but they remained marginal. Nations were created precisely within the borders that had been ethnicized seventy years before. Even ethnic conflicts (Trans-Dniestria was the sole exception) followed the logic of those mental maps. Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – all were autonomous parts of the matryoshka-like-structure of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. In Soviet Georgia there were more Armenians and Azerbaijanis than there were Abkhazians in Abkhazia or Ossetians in South Ossetia taken together. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Georgia have always lived in compact settlements. It would be wrong to say that there were no contradictions or problems there, but they witnessed nothing like the sanguinary conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even the Trans-Dniestrian exception fits in well with the paradigm of ‘autonomy.’ Tiraspol was the informal capital of a region that was fundamentally different from the other areas of Moldova in terms of culture, language, social background and history. It was an informal analogue of an autonomy.

In this context it was only natural to see that as soon as the center grew weak, no matter for whatever reason, the process went ahead at a far greater pace. Its forms changed, but the vector remained the same. The indigenization – not of the elites, but of the entire population in all newly-independent states without any exception – continued in a radical fashion and in a variety of ways – from direct legal pressures on ethnic and cultural minorities in Latvia and Estonia to pogroms and deportations in Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. In some places titular nations are trying to assimilate ethnic minorities, and in others, they force them to leave. But essentially the process is the one formulated by Gellner: “Nationalists create nations.”


Another popular formula these days – “We are in the 21st century, aren’t we?!” – quite often does not work. We live in different centuries. From the standpoint of European history, there are still places around the globe where people live in the 13th century, the 17th century, under early Middle Eastern-type despotisms (like Sumer or Assyria), and in some places still in the Stone Age. A large share of the post-Soviet space lives in the conditions of the 18th-early 19th centuries in terms of West European history or at the beginning of the 20th century in terms of East European and Central European history. It is an era of the emergence of nation states, with many overlapping ethnic projects that generate conflicts – open, sanguinary or cold ones.

Moreover, countries and peoples exist in different centuries simultaneously. Religious wars of the 14th century type may proceed alongside the creation of civil religions matching the spirit of the 19th century, overlap or enter into competition with each other. Archaic public mechanisms coexist with the homogenization of populations, and the creation of political identities, with the rejection of everything alien. The space is becoming ever more heterogeneous. Referring to the post-Soviet space as an entity no longer makes sense. Estonia is far closer to Finland, and Tajikistan, to Afghanistan than Estonia is to Tajikistan. Uzbekistan looks much more like Jordan than Ukraine, and so on. There still remains some inertia, embodied in the older generations’ knowledge of the Russian language and the architecture of Soviet era buildings, but both are fading away. In the process of nation-state building, countries drift ever farther apart. Their interaction, let alone integration, can be only situation-dependent, just as a hypothetical Clovis-Garibaldi integration.

The historical irony is that states that were fundamentally more unified some twenty years ago than the European countries today are in antiphase to uniting Europe (even in view of the euro area crisis). This does not mean that unification trends are impossible. Groups of countries inside of the former USSR have common traits. Also, there are firm political and economic interests which promote the search for mutually beneficial ways of resolving problems – from transportation of fuels to cooperation in defense. But cooperation should by no means be understood as a drift towards integration, let alone unification. On the contrary, post-Soviet republics use any opportunity for taking joint action with other countries to enhance their independence. It is impossible to “restore” anything. Cooperation among former Soviet republics is being built on a fundamentally new basis, which has nothing to do with their common past inside one country.

These processes will be gaining strength. In ten to fifteen years from now the generation of the elites that grew in the Soviet Union and that shares the same culture codes and the ability to communicate with each other like people of one country, and not like foreigners, will begin to leave the stage. The mono-ethnicization process will go on. There are practically no Slavs left in Central Asia, except for Kazakhstan, and in the South Caucasus. In Kazakhstan the percentage of ethnic Russians is still high, but their community is shrinking and aging. In Moldova, the process of cultural Moldovanization and even Romanization is in full swing. Of course, the Slav countries that were once members of the USSR are different in that respect, but the process of building political nations there is rather intensive, and there is absolutely no place for integration trends. Economies and polities need allies, and they find them in various types of associations, but one should hardly expect that they will exist within the framework of common rules, like countries that had spent decades moving in that direction.

It might seem that the classical modernity paradigm leaves no chance for constructive interaction. This is not so. World experience shows that this paradigm permits quite successful cooperation on the utilitarian basis. The postulate that nation states sink into oblivion can be countered with an observation that nation states are being created and they need each other. For instance, the United States needs Saudi Arabia and Italy needs Germany. Such patterns of cooperation are very much like the alliances that existed in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They can and will express the needs of the emerging states, getting rid of what is less important and strengthening everything crucial to further progress.

The geographic and communicatory complementarity of post-Soviet republics will remain for long, if not forever, so there will be mutual interests and cooperation. Possibly, some very profound forms of interaction will be achieved, such as the unification of legislations and the transfer of some powers to the supra-national level. Some of such processes may occur inside the space that we still call post-Soviet. In that case, integration will be theoretically possible. We may keep guessing how successful it might be, just as we have been trying to forecast the future of the European project. A great deal will depend on how successful the already-started process of separation and emergence of political nations is. The partakers’ own awareness of that process as important and natural may largely contribute to the success.

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