Self-Determination Issues in Central Eurasia
Central Eurasia, which is what specialists have taken to calling most of the geographic area once covered by the Soviet Union, has a long history of ethnopolitical complications and related struggles focused on collective identities. Tsarist Russia had moderate success in keeping these within bounds, partly because it was willing to tolerate such collective identities as social constructions autonomous of its own political rule.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had a more insistently penetrative ideology that left little room for cultural, ethnic, or religious autonomy. The Soviet regime tapped the mass communications technologies of the twentieth century to pursue its control over all populations and to implement its program of political socialization. All ethnically based opposition to Moscow’s rule was driven underground. The all-pervasive nature of the Soviet political and security apparatus made calls for any significant sort of self-determination extremely difficult to sustain. When Gorbachev combined economic reform (leading to economic disruption and attendant problems of supply) with political empowerment (permitting Soviet citizens to voice complaints publicly without the fear of repression), he unwittingly unleashed two elements necessary for a political explosion. Long discussed (but little understood) in Soviet political writings, the so-called ‘national question” became the fuse igniting the internal conflicts that burst forth across the Soviet regions in the late 1980s, as the USSR collapsed, and into the 1990s.