“Gorbachev didn't visit any of the hotbeds of interethnic conflicts”

Historian Sergey Vostrikov about ethnic conflicts in the late USSR and federalism, which we have lost but can still gain

“Gorbachev didn't visit any of the hotbeds of interethnic conflicts”
Photo: fssb.su

Realnoe Vremya continues to write about perestroika, the 35th anniversary of the beginning of which we celebrate this spring. Sergey Vostrikov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, discusses why along with the processes of democratisation and glasnost in the Soviet Union, the policy on the ethnic issue failed and what path should be taken in this issue in modern Russia.

“If there are problems with economy, the ethno-national factor will come to the fore”

Sergey Vasilyevich, it is believed that separatist and nationalist movements largely contributed to the collapse of the USSR. Vladimir Putin is inclined to see the roots of these processes in the figure of Lenin, who created national formations in the country, giving them the right to leave the Union. Is the leader of the world proletariat really to blame for everything?

No, and what is more, we can even talk about the genius of the first leader of the Soviet state. When the Bolsheviks came to power, the first question was, as you know, how to maintain this power, and the second — how to boost the economy destroyed during the civil war. But one of the sub-questions in the context of these two problems was precisely the question of interethnic relations, since the former Russian Empire was multinational.

And the Bolsheviks have a great deal of credit for being able to pick up the pieces of the broken mirror of the country, if you like. Which, by the way, they did not break — they did not do the same February Revolution and they did not start the First World War, which became the catalyst for the collapse of the empire. Lenin needed to preserve the remnants of the empire and respond to the challenges and risks that he faced in this situation, and he found a formula for this. For almost a thousand years, Russia has existed as a unitary state, but Lenin was looking for another form of government.

He sees what is happening on the ground (in Ukraine, in 1918, the Central Rada was created, independent Georgia and Azerbaijan were formed), and in order to restrain the Ukranian separatists, he proposes a federal form of the country's structure, which was then attractive, assuming for many territories already national names and, more importantly, an ideology that provided for the equality of all the peoples of the country. This was very important and true for many peoples. It is thanks to ideology that the national staff training for the management and development of territories has increased, which was not previously the case — the first secretary in the national republics was a local national native, and the second — a Russian. Besides, there was an upsurge in national cultures, which were lagging behind in many fields.

Photo: rapsinews.ru
Lenin needed to preserve the remnants of the empire and respond to the challenges and risks that he faced in this situation, and he found a formula for this

And what happened? Why did the ideology start to crack at the seams and the country got the first serious national conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh? Was the problem really about the unfortunate division of administrative borders in Transcaucasia, as a result of which the region with a superior number of Armenians became part of Azerbaijan?

Yes, the division in this area was initially wrong, very hasty, and this laid a time bomb. Besides, this division was carried out not in Moscow, as expected, but in the ZSFSR (it included Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), whose leadership, led by Narimanov, decided that, they say, if we have an international population in the ZSFSR and the ethnicity of the people is not important, we give this territory to Azerbaijan. But ethnicity was important! It is important in politics, culture, and international relations: for the Azerbaijanis, the Armenians were foreign, but the Armenians are a people with a rich and ancient culture. Besides, the Azerbaijanis are Muslims and the Armenians are Christians, and the decision to hand over Karabakh to Azerbaijan was comparable to putting a grenade in a person's pocket with a check pulled out, and it was only a matter of time before it exploded.

This time came in the '50s, with the Khrushchev Thaw, when the foundations of internationalism in the USSR had already begun to erode, cosmopolitanism was gone, and the national factor came to the fore in many republics. Since 1987 in the USSR, there is an active process of merging the national revivalists with the local party nomenclature. But Moscow did not want to notice it, although it was going from the Baltic states to Turkmenistan. Why did all the republics finally go “to their apartments” in 1991? Because the national factor was tenacious, and you will not get away from it, and in addition, almost every leader of the republic wanted to become an apanage prince. If you are an ethnocrat, like Niyazov or Gamsakhurdia, or the same Kravchuk, your support is only national construction.

During the “thaw”, the Armenians had their own national idea — the idea of Miatsum, or the reunification of Karabakh with its mother country, and already in the '80s, a corridor was broken through from Karabakh to Armenia, along which a stream of military volunteers poured into the autonomy. But another one is equally important. Armenia had a higher standard of living than Azerbaijan, and although the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh lived better than the rest of Azerbaijan, people often look in the direction “where it is better”. As the Germans of the GDR looked towards Germany, so the Armenians of Karabakh looked towards a richer Armenia.

Why didn't the leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan manage to control these things?

The leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan was the same type as in the Central Asian republics — it reported to Moscow that everything was fine with them.

Photo: armmuseum.ru
During the “thaw”, the Armenians had their own national idea — the idea of Miatsum, or the reunification of Karabakh with its mother country, and already in the '80s, a corridor was broken through from Karabakh to Armenia, along which a stream of military volunteers poured into the autonomy

Why didn't internal troops immediately enter Nagorno-Karabakh to restore order? After all, there was already an Armenian pogrom in Sumgait in 1988.

The centre was afraid, and personally Gorbachev was not the most courageous person in this regard. Please note that during the entire period of leadership of the country, Gorbachev did not come to any hotbed of interethnic conflicts but preferred to observe all this from his office in Moscow. But when you are in Moscow, many things can seem wonderful to you. It was difficult to use troops, since the glasnost process was launched, and Moscow's control over the territories of both Armenia and Azerbaijan was virtually lost in a short time. Take the current situation in Russia — now the parade of sovereignties is impossible because the power reliably monitors all that is happening in the regions: there is the FSB, there is the National Guard of Russia, the ministry of internal affairs, and all these agencies submit to Moscow, so no encroachments on the part of leaders in the field will not be — everything is closely watched by “Papa Mueller”.

Yes, since 1987, there had been eases in the country's governance system — transparency and so on, but when you start reforms or implement any ideas in the management of the state, you must think through a strategy. In the same economy, and the national sphere largely depends on the economy. If there are problems with the economy, the ethno-national factor will come to the fore, as it was in Nagorno-Karabakh. And incompetence in reforms, blatant ignorance make everything worse.

Was it logical that Armenia, unlike Azerbaijan, refused to join the new USSR, which was supposed to be created by the Union Treaty in August 1991?

Certainly. The lack of understanding of the Karabakh issue by the allied leadership was a great offense for the Armenians, and what is important, the Armenians saw that the Soviet leadership did not protect the Armenians of Sumqayit and Baku. There was an Armenian district in Baku, it occupied the North-Western part of the city, and it was even called “the city of Armenikyan”. And when, in January 1990, Armenians were essentially put under the knife there, it caused great resentment in Armenia against the Soviet leadership. The events in Baku had already become a kind of “apophyge” — criminologists said that the ceiling was covered with blood in many houses because entire families were slaughtered, it was an ethnocide.

Photo: armedia.am
The lack of understanding of the Karabakh issue by the allied leadership was a great offense for the Armenians, and what is important, the Armenians saw that the Soviet leadership did not protect the Armenians of Sumqayit and Baku

“Georgia made it clear that it did not need Meskhetian Turks, for many Georgians they were apostates”

The first major ethnic conflict in Central Asia occurred in June 1989 in Uzbekistan, specifically in the Fergana Region, between the Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks. The head of the republic at that time, Rafik Nishanov, said that everything happened because a Turk was rude to an Uzbek woman who was selling strawberries, overturned a plate, and this resulted in bloody riots and pogroms of Turkish homes in cities throughout the region. Can it be explained by relatively liberal times when the control over negative processes was weakened?

The situation with the relations between the indigenous population and Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan was, in general, complicated before that. Meskhetian Turks came to Uzbekistan as a result of deportation in 1944, as well as Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans, and other peoples. But in the case of the Meskhetian Turks, it was complicated by that they were relocated to a region of Uzbekistan that was already overpopulated with a variety of nationalities, and besides, the Uzbeks, as an indigenous population, had a difficult relationship with the Kyrgyz people, who had several enclaves in that area.

The Meskhetian Turks initially had no relations with the Tatars, who also inhabited the Fergana Region, or with the Uzbeks, who considered themselves the owners of those places, and all this could have been called an emergency before. And when the course of perestroika was proclaimed, it provoked both separatist tendencies in the Baltic States and nationalistic ones — some elements among the indigenous population of Uzbekistan did not want to see other peoples in their homeland. As a result, after the bloody events of June 1989, all Meskhetian Turks had to be evacuated from the Uzbek SSR.

But the evacuation wasn't easy either, was it? The Meskhetian Turks were not destined to be in their homeland, Georgia.

That's right, and the main reason was the language issue. Georgia at that time, after the events of April 9 of the same year, already intended to declare one language as the state language — Georgian, which it subsequently did. The Abkhazians were logically offended by this, which in 1992 turned into a confrontation and a brutal war between the two peoples. In the case of the Meskhetian Turks, Georgia made it clear that they were not needed here — for many Georgians, they were considered apostates, as were the Adjarians (Adjarians are Georgians who converted to Islam — editor's note). Besides, Georgia believed that the Meskhetian Turks were already looking towards Turkey, and Tbilisi refused Moscow. And the Meskhetian Turks were sent to Kuban, and already in the noughties — to the United States, since their stay in Kuban caused conflicts between representatives of this people and the Cossacks and protests of the Cossacks, which threatened the Turks with serious consequences. Moscow realised that it could happen, as in the Fergana Valley and accepted the offer of the Americans to relocate many Turks overseas.

Photo: cyxymu.info
Georgia's claims to Abkhazia were generally groundless, the latter separately entered Russia in 1813 under Knyaz Georgy Chachba, and under the Union Treaty Abkhazia was part of the USSR separately, not as part of Georgia

“The Union Treaty of 1991 was a stillborn child”

Wikipedia, citing the work of several researchers about the tactics of the Gorbachev team in the ethnic issue says this: “To do nothing for prevention, to allow the event to grow, then use them to suppress a small force, igniting passion, and then to apply the most severe measures against those violating the order, and against the innocent, thereby contributing to a further deterioration of the situation.” Do you agree with this assessment?

There was no single tactic because of the weakness and incompetence of the Soviet leadership in national issues, everything was self-directed. The policy in international relations had to be built differently. Such problems have been, are, and will continue to be, but it is another matter how you regulate them, monitor them, and prevent them. The situation in the USSR would have been different if there had been a ministry of national affairs in the country, consisting of professionally trained people who would have been well and deeply involved in these problems, monitored and predicted them, and submitted draft decisions to the highest state leadership. There was no such in the USSR. Ethnic relations are a very delicate matter because there is also a religious factor involved. If there are millions of other faiths living in Russia, where will you go?

Would the Union Treaty, if signed, have saved the USSR from other possible national conflicts? Or could it have saved them with the expansion of the powers of the republics of the new Union provided for in this document?

The Union Treaty of 1991 was a stillborn child. The new treaty had to be created immediately after Gorbachev came to power, and its concept had to be scientifically sound. Lenin's response to the problems he faced a hundred years ago was adequate and he solved the national problems. And Gorbachev's response should have been more appropriate.

But if you do not have a foundation in economic development, you will not build a strong foreign policy, nor, of course, a strong federal state. In an undeveloped economy, there are great dangers, and this was mentioned in his posthumous book 'Russia. Hopes and Anxieties' by Evgeny Primakov. If the economy is destroyed, Russia, in his opinion, can repeat the fate of the USSR, since it can easily be the same betrayal by the elites, or rather by the pseudo-elites. The growth of prosperity allows us to solve many inter-ethnic and inter-religious problems within the country, and since our country is not easy in this regard, it requires both great foresight in national policy and proper economic development: one cannot exist without the other.

Photo: forpost-sz.ru
The Union Treaty of 1991 was a stillborn child. The new treaty had to be created immediately after Gorbachev came to power, and its concept had to be scientifically sound

“The Swiss experience is interesting for Russia but we need to develop our own model of federalism”

Do we have people in large offices for this kind of work? So far, I see only “B and C students” there. Are there future leaders for the country? No. When people tell me about The Leaders of Russia contest, I laugh and call it The Careerists of Russia. No competitions give real leaders of the country, leaders are a piece product, and they make themselves. But we don't have that, we only create bureaucrats for work.

I think Putin is thinking about this, about what kind of Russia he will leave and whom he transfer it to. That's why he wants to legalise the agency like the State Council. Apparently, it will be the most important body for representation of regions, representation of the periphery with their problems. Moscow, as a megalopolis, is a major hindrance to Russia's development, it has become the centre of concentration of financial capital, drawing on financial flows and all the country's talents. What remains for the rest of Russia? What if a war? The entire control system, which is concentrated in Moscow, will be destroyed!

It is important not so much to give something to the regions but to hear them in the same State Council. Because each region should be equal, and the word of all regions should be expressed and taken into account in all power structures of Russia. The council is the most correct and native Russian structure.

Sergey Vasilyevich, is it possible to build federalism in Russia, taking into account that it should be federalism on an ethnically diverse territory?

I think we should take the example of the oldest national confederation in Europe — Switzerland. The main place in Switzerland is not occupied by the president but by the council of cantons (states of Switzerland). It has broad rights and powers, all its languages have equal status in the country, and cantons can hold referendums on a variety of issues. And this experience allows the country to live and thrive for 253 years.

The Swiss experience is interesting for Russia but we need to develop our own model of federalism. Because the complexity and truth of our country is that modern Russia by the standards of the UN is a mono-national state (there are more Russians in Russia than the British in the UK, Persians in Iran, Spaniards in Spain), but, no less important, it is a multi-ethnic country (in Russia there are 175 nations, nationalities and ethnicities). This is already a more complex situation than in Switzerland, where there are only three languages, so a complete transfer to Russia of the foreign model of federalism would be wrong. This means that creativity and a systematic approach are very important for the authorities and regions in this issue.

By Sergey Kochnev