The Ephemeral Post-Soviet Space

High in the mountains of the lesser Caucusus, a historical Rubicon has been crossed. Turkey has become the first country to openly intervene in a war in the post-Soviet space that was not formerly part of the Soviet Union. And even more remarkably, Russia remains on the sidelines while Armenia and Azerbaijan renew their stagnant war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Post-Soviet Space Has Come and Gone

This is a seemingly historic moment, its significance belied only by the simple fact that the year is 2020 and not 2000, and in 2020 the post-Soviet space is little more than a relic of history.

Twenty years prior it may indeed have been unthinkable that a foreign power would intervene militarily in what Russia thought of as its “near abroad.” Russia had by then begun to develop what looked like a new political home for the country and those around it. One where late-Soviet apparatchiks were given a new lease on their careers as leaders of independent states.

In the early 2000s, the distinctly post-Soviet character of most of the USSR’s successor states was unmistakable. A summit of post-Soviet leaders would have included several former Soviet Politburo members, the former Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the former Deputy Premier as well. Post-Soviet then described a living epoch. It was high-Post Sovietism.

The Ouster of Shevardnadze

But by the end of 2003 the first cracks in that system started to show when Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze was toppled by pro-Western protests. The first of many so-called color revolutions which shook the post-Soviet elite to its core. Color revolutions toppled some and terrified the rest, while simultaneously proving the weakness of the post-Soviet space as a political concept.

It was a real political concept though, one that gave added meaning to the word that simply described a state of being formerly part of the USSR. One which manifested itself not just in the many informal ties that aided transnational cooperation between post-Soviet leaders, but also in numerous institutions built to keep post-Soviet states together politically and economically.

Also, one that progressively grew smaller by the year with each deposed post-Soviet autocrat. 

Moscow Shot Itself in the Foot

But the decisive blow did not come from the provinces, but from the center itself. Much like in the USSR’s case, it was the decisions taken in Moscow that proved fatal. With pro-Western forces in Ukraine overthrowing their second Russophile President within a decade in 2014, the Kremlin made a decision that guaranteed any shared post-Soviet space was dead. It annexed Crimea and provoked war in Eastern Ukraine, choosing nationalism over post-Sovietism, and likely condemning Russia and Ukraine to a generation of mutual antagonism.

This conflict also highlighted a paradox in the entire conception of a post-Soviet space to begin with. How could two countries so diametrically opposed be so widely conceived of as belonging to a single political space?

What Does ‘Post-Soviet’ Mean Anymore? Very Little

If Ukraine is post-Soviet and Russia is post-Soviet, Armenia is post-Soviet and Azerbaijan is post-Soviet, then what does post-Soviet even mean? Of course it means these four countries were all once part of the USSR, a country which has not been seen on the map for thirty years. But so too was Croatia part of Austria-Hungary and Serbia part of the Ottoman Empire, and yet we seem to be spared of incessantly hearing about the empires these countries were once part of because it has little to no bearing on contemporary political developments.

In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was genuine continuity across the space from Eastern Europe to Central Asia that made a post-Soviet space a real realm of political engagement. Today the phrase “post-Soviet” survives only as a distant and largely irrelevant cultural reference point for a distracted and disinterested western public struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

Meanwhile Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan against Armenia and its proxy Republic of Artsakh is a sign of focus and interest on behalf of Ankara in advancing its political interests. From Libya and Syria to the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, it is making full use of its strategically unique geographical position to project power in all directions.

That includes in the direction of the Caucusus. The mountainous region bordering Turkey’s northeast home to countless small nations, only a handful of which have independent states to call their own. One of those lucky few is Armenia, a country of just around 3 million inhabitants now stumbling into an all-out war with a neighbor three times its size supported by a country of over 80 million people in Turkey.

This is today’s reality.

The New Geopolitical Reality

It is hardly just in the Caucusus that this reality is playing out. In Central Asia China has already supplanted Russia as the most important foreign power in the region. In Ukraine and Georgia the temptation of the West has drawn both countries into armed conflict with Russia, while again in 2020 the allure of freedom has brought the people of Belarus into the streets in droves in hopes of toppling their geriatric post-Soviet leader.

New realities –  political, social, cultural, economic, and beyond – have changed every corner of what was once the Soviet Union. Permanently. Just as the Soviet Union is now merely a subject of history, perhaps it is time to accept that the post-Soviet space is as well.

Unlike the young men who perished in the first Nagorno-Karabkh War, the young Azeris and Armenians dying in the mountains of Karabakh have no memory of the Soviet Union. Their birthdays read 2000, 1997, or even 2002. A new millennium in which all things Soviet are a distant memory — and in time all things post-Soviet will be too.