A map of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In March 1985, the Politburo, the highest policy-making body of the Soviet Union, elected Mikhail Gorbachev as the eighth General Secretary of the Communist Party. Convinced that a radical overhaul of the Soviet system was the only way forward, he proceeded to initiate an ambitious and wide-reaching reform program in a last-ditch attempt to save the failing Soviet economy. His reforms included four key tenets: glasnost (openness or transparency), perestroika (restructuring), demokratizatsiya (democratization), and uskorenie (acceleration of economic development).
A little more than three years later, in September 1988, partially inspired by Gorbachev’s progressive reforms, workers began a general strike in Poland that set off a revolutionary wave across the Eastern Bloc, and, in quick succession, communist regimes across the region began to collapse. At that point, the situation had spiraled out of the Gorbachev’s control, and he could do nothing but look on helplessly as, one by one, each of the fifteen Soviet republics declared independence in a ‘parade of sovereignties’: first Lithuania, then Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Russia, and, finally, Kazakhstan. In December 1991, on Christmas Day, Gorbachev officially announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and resigned. He handed the country’s nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, and lowered the flag of the Soviet Union for the last time. One of the most powerful and feared states of the twentieth century had been shattered completely. Gorbachev had only ruled for six years.
As the post-Soviet republics began rebuilding, the task in front of them was immense and historically unprecedented. The Soviet Union, whose population numbered more than 285 million people, had been the third-largest country in the world by population and had the third-largest economy in the world by GDP. In the aftermath of the Soviet dissolution, however, the economy collapsed entirely: in Russia, for example, GDP fell by 40 percent. (For comparison, in the US during the Great Depression, GDP fell by 27 percent) Compounding the issue, millions of the most educated and skilled Soviet workers fled to the West, causing a massive brain drain. To this day, some post-Soviet republics are poorer now than they were in Soviet times.
At the same time, more than 25 million ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves living outside of Russia proper, mostly concentrated in Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Soon, interethnic tensions began to simmer in many of the republics, while they boiled over into open warfare in Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Tajikistan, and later in Georgia and, most recently, Ukraine. Moreover, many of these conflicts have not been comprehensively addressed; instead, they are ‘frozen’ in states of permanent ceasefire, threatening to reignite at any time, given the slightest provocation.
Over the next twenty-five years, the former Soviet republics rapidly began to diverge from each other. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU in 2004. Popular revolutions swept across Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010. Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan grew wealthy off of oil and natural gas and built glitzy, glimmering capitals. At the same time, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and much of Central Asia retained authoritarian, Soviet-style regimes. Indeed, much of the former Soviet Union remained mired in poverty and suffering: Russia, for example, is among the most wealth unequal societies in the world, while Uzbekistan has the second-highest prevalence of slavery in the world in proportion to its population.
Why has each former Soviet republic had such different political, economic, and social outcomes since the collapse of the USSR? This series seeks to begin a conversation around this question. Every week for five weeks, we will publish an article about each of the post-Soviet states, divided into five geographic regions: Russia, the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Eastern Europe (Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova), the South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan). The articles will provide rough outlines of the history of each republic since 1991 and detail the political and economic futures of each republic. We hope that you will find this series useful in conceptualizing a region that remains critical to international affairs and yet is still widely misunderstood by the outside world.