The Territorial Management of Ethnic Conflict

By John Coakley | Go to book overview

9

The Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Federation, Commonwealth, Secession

RONALD J.HILL

In the second half of the 1980s, a bewildered world looked on as the world's largest territorial state-the successor to the Tsarist Empire-fell apart in national self-assertion and ethnic rivalry. The central authorities found themselves unable to cope with the mounting pressures, and at the end of 1991 a system that had prided itself on its capacity to embrace many different ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic groups, and had held them together in a powerful state with significant material and cultural achievements to its credit, rapidly collapsed.

This came as a surprise to most of the world, which had, with reservations, gone along with the complacent view of the 1970s that the national question had been 'solved' thanks to the 'Leninist' nationalities policy, and that all ethnic groups lived peaceably together as 'the Soviet people'. 1 It was long understood that the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania bitterly resented their incorporation into the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and the subsequent Russian migration into these republics; 2 and the demographic pressures of the Muslim population were appreciated. 3 Moreover, Leonid Brezhnev's successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, had observed in the early 1980s that, although the national question had been solved 'in the form in which it reached us from the past', this did not mean that it had been entirely removed from the agenda. 4 Nevertheless, few seriously predicted that the break-up of the Soviet Union might emerge as a political issue in the 1990s. 5

Yet the spread of ethnic tension, unrest and violence, combined with declarations of 'sovereignty' and 'independence' by sub-national units, demonstrated both the fragility of the earlier interethnic peace and the complexity of an issue that urgently demanded (and still demands) effec-

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