25 Years On: Eastern Europe
A map of Europe with Belarus in orange. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A map of Europe with Ukraine in orange. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A map of Europe with Moldova in orange. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Despite their geographic closeness, the three Eastern European republics of the former Soviet Union have vastly different political and social histories. Belarus has retained many Soviet policies, including state ownership of wide swaths of the economy. Meanwhile, President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled since 1994 and is widely known as ‘the last dictator of Europe.’ Belarus and Russia maintain very close relations, and the two have even floated the idea of reuniting in recent years. On the other end of the spectrum lies Moldova, which has sought political and economic partnerships with the EU, and especially with Romania, with which it enjoys deep historical ties. Yet, Moldova has serious problems to overcome, including separatist movements in the east (Transnistria) and south (Gagauzia), as well as its infamous status as the poorest country in all of Europe. Somewhere between these two extremes is Ukraine, a massive and strategically-important country that is literally being torn in two due to its position between Europe and Russia. Most recently, this split identity has been seen in the 2014 pro-European Euromaidan Revolution and the subsequent pro-Russian military insurgency in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Neighbors with the EU and NATO on the one hand and with Russia on the other, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova are at the frontlines of relations between Russia and the West.
A Brief History
A majority of modern-day Belarus and Ukraine were firmly under Russian Imperial control by the late 1700s. Prior to this, both had been under the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under Russian, and then Soviet, control, the Belarusian and Ukrainian languages were strongly discouraged in favor of the Russian. Although Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians are all East Slavic peoples with similar cultures, languages, and religious traditions, the Belarusian and Ukrainian cultures and languages are distinct and separate from Russian. Ukraine in particular was heavily Russified; by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, around one-fifth of Ukraine’s population was ethnically Russian, mostly concentrated in the eastern half of the country and the Crimean Peninsula in the south.
Moldova, on the other hand, has a very different history. The territory of contemporary Moldova has historically been part of Romania and only came under complete Russian influence in 1878. Due to their long separation from Romania, many Moldovans today claim a distinct Moldovan identity, even though the two countries share deep historical and socio-cultural ties. Nonetheless, the Moldovan and Romanian languages are fully intelligible, and the two countries’ cultural and religious traditions remain extremely close. Indeed, a major cleavage in contemporary Moldovan society and politics is that between the ‘unionists,’ who advocate for the reuniting of Romania and Moldova, and the ‘Moldovenists,’ who believe in a separate Moldovan identity distinct from that of Romanians.
Additionally, all three countries, and especially Belarus and Ukraine, have historically had significant Jewish populations, especially in urban centers. Hostility towards Jews was relatively commonplace, with pogroms, violent anti-Semitic riots, lasting well into the 1920s. A majority of the Jewish population in both Belarus and Ukraine were murdered during the Holocaust. Moreover, many of the survivors and their families have moved to Israel or the US, and so today, the Jewish population in the region is a fraction of what it once was.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the political histories of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova have diverged wildly. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994 and has kept many Soviet-era policies in place. Authorities regularly crush political dissent; according to international observers, there have been no free and fair elections in the country since Lukashenko’s rise to power. Belarus maintains close relations with Russia, and the two have even considered reuniting in order to form what they call a Union State. Just two months ago, Russia and Belarus conducted joint war games called Zapad-2017 that involved 60,000-70,000 troops. At the same time, however, there has been some indication that Lukashenko wants to move the country closer to Europe in the aftermath of the 2014 illegal Russian military intervention in Ukraine, fearing that Russia may do the same to Belarus in the future.
Unlike Belarus, Ukraine’s independent political history has been marked by popular uprisings. In 2004, after it was revealed that that year’s presidential elections had been rigged, mass civil disobedience called the Orange Revolution led to a rerun of the elections. A decade later, in 2013-2014, Ukrainians again gathered en masse in opposition to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a trade agreement with the EU in favor of one with Russia. Due to pressure from this so-called Euromaidan movement, Yanukovych fled the country, a new government was installed, and the trade deal with the EU was signed. However, in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the two regions of the country with significant ethnic Russian minorities, the backlash against Euromaidan was swift and intense. Eventually, the Russian government intervened militarily, aiding pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and occupying, and then actually annexing, Crimea. To this day the insurgency continues, and Ukraine is still physically torn between its European and Russian identities.
Finally, Moldova presents a paradoxical case. On the one hand, it remains the poorest country in Europe, and the only post-Soviet state where the Communist Party regained a majority in government after the Union’s collapse. Moreover, there have been strong separatist movements in Transnistria in the east of the country, which remains unresolved, and in Gagauzia in the south, which has been largely resolved. At the same time, however, the country enjoys relatively strong democratic political institutions, including generally free and fair elections, and has made consistent strides to European political-economic integration. In recent years, the government has even gone so far as to openly state that EU membership is one of the country’s highest priorities.
Where are Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Heading?
Given their geographic location between Russia and the West, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova are of strategic importance for both parties. As tensions between the EU and Russia seem to continue unabated, it will remain important to watch these Eastern European republics of the former Soviet Union. Based on past and present historical developments, it seems that these three countries will continue down their separate paths. Although the separatist conflict in the Transnistria region continues, the Moldovan government remains determined to join Europe. The same can be said for the Ukrainian government and much of the Ukrainian population, although it should be noted that many ethnic Russians in the country feel otherwise. The military insurgency in the east and Russian occupation of Crimea continues. Finally, Belarus has historically rejected Brussels in favor of close ties with Moscow; this, however, could be changing. Whatever happens in the coming years with Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, it is certain that they will remain at the frontlines of relations between Russia and the West.