The collapse of the Soviet Union 30-years on

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by Sarah Coolican, Programme Manager

The collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century’; arguably an overused quote which many see as evidence of Russia’s misguided ‘Great Power disposition’. It would be amiss, however, to ignore the enormous ramifications the dissolution of the Soviet Union had for the 25 million ethnic Russians who found themselves as non-titular citizens outside the borders of the newly formed Russian Federation. ‘One day millions of Russians woke up without a fatherland, all they had ever known, gone. They had to learn over the radio’, and an unexpected ‘beached diaspora’ was created. Today, Russia boasts the fourth largest diaspora in the world (UN, 2019), what is truly noteworthy, however, is the realised political potential of this group; its unparalleled soft power influence to further foreign policies abroad, whilst simultaneously helping to redefine national identity domestically. 11th March 1990, Lithuania became the first Eastern-Bloc state to declare its independence from the Soviet Union. Followed in quick succession by Latvia, 4th May 1990, and Estonia, 20th August 1991. What was unusual about these new countries, was their ethnic composition (Table 1). The remarkably high numbers of ethnic Russians in these three states has marked their nation-building policies, and the continued Russian diasporic presence pose great possibilities for the Kremlin to exercise its influence there.

David Laitin’s seminal work Identity in Formation: The Russian Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (1998) set the tone for enquiry into this population formed of a political cataclysm, conceptualising a new conglomerate identity of ‘Russian-speaking populations’ (RSP) as a ‘diaspora without a homeland, non-titular, Russian-speaking, and soviet peoples’. Whilst the RSP did not ‘have claim to be a nationality’ back then, their very existence has been ideologically transformed over the years by the Russian state to facilitate the formation of such nationalist claims. Russian ‘compatriots’ have been ideologically constructed and politically utilised by the Kremlin in efforts to further Russian interests abroad. What began as the RSP, became officially codified as an ethnic diaspora in the 1993 Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. Later, this ‘ethnic’ diaspora evolved to include more cultural elements, and ideas of ‘Russian compatriots’ were formed. As of 2010, to be a ‘Russian Compatriot’ all that is needed is ethnic ancestry to one of 185 nationalities present in the former Russian Empire, and a ‘spiritual connection’ to the Russian homeland. ‘Compatriots’ are defined as ‘transmitters of Russian culture, values, language, and intermediaries of relations between Russia and foreign countries’. From Putin’s third term in office, the ideological concept of ‘Russkii Mir’ (Russian World) has become an intrinsic part of Russian diasporic policies.

Russia uses the terms compatriot and diaspora interchangeably in its official foreign policy, with ‘the consolidation of compatriots living abroad to facilitate the preservation of the Russian diaspora’s identity and ties with the historical homeland’, one of many examples.

The events in Ukraine in March 2014 are seen as a watershed moment for Russia’s use of its diaspora as a foreign policy tool, formally ‘returning Crimea and its Russian people back to the Russian land’. By using hard-power foreign policies in the name of Responsibility To Protect (R2P) the Russian diaspora in Ukraine, the concept of ‘Russkii Mir’ suddenly meant the Russian diasporas became a politically useful tool to justify military policies to an international audience. It must be noted that the Baltic States are also ‘victims of Russia’s psychological need to manifest an identity of itself as a regional leader’.

Laitin’s work (1998) provides a basis for this research – a study of a diaspora unique in its history and identification. Twenty-three years after its publication, and thirty years after the declaration of independence from states across Eastern Europe, renewed insight into this population is needed.

Research into public feeling

This essay utilises secondary data from opinion polls, censuses, government policies, and official statistics from both the Russian Federation and the Baltic States. Opinion polls are a key indicator to analyse the identification of societal groups, as participating in a poll involves respondents self-identifying with the categories provided. Similarly, opinion polls, census data, and official statistics provide unparalleled large-scale microdata on domestic and international political relations. Censuses provide quantifiable categories which can be used for longitudinal analysis and are a vital tool in the study of populations. Similarly, the use of official statistics allows this research to fit into the broader scholarly efforts concerning the Russian diaspora. Quantifiable statistical data will be analysed with reference to the official publications, documents, and policies of Russia regarding the Baltic States, to see if this specific diaspora possesses political potential as a tool of foreign policy.

Russian Foreign Policy towards the Baltic States, March 2014-2019

Although the timeframe we are analysing involves policies exclusively in Putin’s third and fourth term as President, it is important to note that this trend of utilising ethno-cultural identity to enact diasporic political potential began in the Yeltsin era with the ‘Yeltsin Doctrine’ on the Near Abroad. Also known as ‘The Russian Monroe Doctrine’, this acknowledged Russia’s privileged interests in Soviet successor republics. It is the Eurasianist school, however, who have been pivotal in the utilisation of ethno-cultural potential in Russian compatriots. The Eurasionist school began appearing more prominently in Russian mainstream politics during Putin’s first and second term. The 1999 Compatriot Law, more specifically Article III, allowed for each Russian or former Soviet-Citizen to construct their own relations towards the Russian Federation. The 2010 amendment to this law, however, permitted anyone to become a citizen of Russia, as long as you had ancestral connections to one of 185 national groups within the Russian Empire, and a ‘spiritual link’.

This marked a shift away from a compatriot concept of minority protection rights, towards the ethno-historical concept of Russkii Mir which now permeates all aspects of Russian domestic and foreign policy. ‘Passportisation’, and repatriation policies offer full citizenship to compatriots all over the globe and widens Russia’s institutional jurisdiction over the post-Soviet space. The importance of Russian-speaking ‘compatriots’ has been enshrined in the Russian Foreign Policy Concept since 2013, and the Kremlin has come to view compatriots abroad as some kind of a political, economic and social resource.

The concept of the Russian diaspora has developed throughout the years as a tool for exercising Russian influence abroad, but also as a project for nation-building at home. The term ‘Compatriot’ has often served as a discursive framing tool in political discourse to justify contradictions in Russian approaches to state sovereignty. As of 2019, there are over 20 federal agencies and state institutions who specifically support the Russian diaspora, receiving a combined 400 million roubles of government funding annually. The Russkii Mir foundation, founded in 2007, now has 65 centres globally and an annual budget of around 500 million roubles, funded publicly and privately. The structure and policies of the Putin regime has created a network of institutions specifically created to help enact the political potential of the Russian diaspora, through the means of soft and sharp power.

Soft Power Policies

There has been numerous and successful cross-border legislation passed and cultural programmes enacted between Russia and the Baltic States between 2014 and 2019. 2018 saw the ratification of a law allowing permits for local cross-border movement to residents’ on the Latvia-Russia border. Similarly, the cross-border Cooperation Programme of Estonia and Russia has seen bilateral cooperation on issues of border security, the environment and sustainability since 2014. Project LT-RU also facilitates Lithuanian-Russian cooperation on issues of tourism, costal management and inclusive collaboration. Whilst cooperation on these non-hard-security issues seems to have provided some successes, there has been a sustained multilateral push from each Baltic State to cleanse themselves of any subliminal Russian soft power influence.

This has not stopped Russia from employing a cultural diplomacy approach towards its diaspora, as it has done in Ukraine and the Caucasus. The Baltic states have been highly anti-Russian in their post-Soviet approach to citizenship and nation-building, which has seen Russia develop ‘Russkii Mir’ and soft power policies based on countering this marginalisation of diaspora. Despite this, the trend towards diasporic communities viewing the ‘host-land’ as ‘home’ has shown huge increases, with 66% of respondents from other ethnicities indicating Estonia as their homeland in 2011, increasing to 76% in 2014. Similarly, in Latvia 51% of ethnic Russians consider themselves ‘Latvian Patriots’. The Kremlin’s policies of ‘Russkii Mir’ seem to have failed to have resounding effects on Russian diasporic communities in the Baltic states since 2014.

Sharp Power Policies

Sharp power has emerged as a preferred tool of the Kremlin in its influence efforts both abroad and at home. This relatively new phenomena of removing the integrity from democratic institutions through hacking and misinformation came to international attention in the 2016 United States Presidential election and the 2016 UK Brexit vote. Most recently the UK Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russian interference details a ‘growing and significant cyber threat from Russia’. This is no new phenomenon, however, for the Baltic states, who have over the years experienced the effects of cyber-attacks, information warfare and sharp power from the Kremlin.

In 2007 the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet Bronze Soldier monument from the centre of Tallinn to a military cemetery outside of the centre. This decision led to four days of rioting in Tallinn by the Russian minority, and led to the Estonian government falling victim to a cyber-attack which penetrated financial and government computer systems and lasted for three-weeks. The government, however, was already prepared for such cyberwarfare, being among the first countries to create a Computer Emergency Response Team to manage security incidents in 2006. Since 2008, The NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence has been headquartered in Tallinn. Similarly, The National Cyber Security Centre in Kaunas, Lithuania and Constitution Protection Bureau in Riga, Latvia both perform similar functions pertaining to resilience against sharp power.

Lithuanian ‘Elves’ constitute a volunteer group of civilians who tackle online Russian misinformation, and fines or suspends media deemed to have a bias. As of 2014, NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence has been Headquartered in Riga, which specialises in combating sharp power. Martin Helme, Estonia’s Finance Minister called for a government investigation into Russian money laundering from EU-sanctioned companies through Danske Bank in 2019. Echoing, Latvian claims that Russian businesses bypass European sanctions by laundering money through Baltic banks. Years of Russian illegal activity has prompted these states to become more financially and cyber secure, and the Baltics have become highly resilient to cyber-attacks and sharp power as they remain some of the most technologically advanced nations. As with the hard-power influence attempts, the Baltic states, at state level, remain a more difficult target for Russian foreign policy.

It is among the Russian diaspora, however, where we are seeking to find Russian state influence. The potentially unifying communication base of the diaspora in the Baltic states has always been the Russian language. Russian state news is broadcast in these countries, and viewership has been seen to weaken diasporic local civic loyalty and consolidate identities around Russia. 92% of the Russian diaspora in Estonia watch a Russian-state media channel every day, with 89% also watching a local media channel daily and 49% regularly following at least one Western channel. In Latvia, the answers form the Russian diaspora were 97%, 54% and 10% respectively. In Lithuania, 81.8% of the Russian diaspora watch Russian news daily, but with only two Russian language news shows being broadcast on LTV and TV3 (Lithuanian state channels), there are concerning that this is likely to shift the Russian-speaking audience from local information sources to Russian-language sources outside Lithuania.

However, in July 2020 the Lithuanian Radio and Television Commission banned the transmission of RT on Lithuanian television after continued reports of Kremlin backed disinformation campaigns and due to the head, Dmitri Kiselev, being personally under EU sanctions. In each of these countries there is a government run Russian-language channel which provides news and other programmes and has come to act as a counter to Russian encroachment. Multiple news sources and freedom of information is a different experience for the Russian Diaspora from their Russian citizen counterparts and has caused them to develop a double consciousness when it comes to media consumption, searching for multiple-news sources and media outlets.

Sharp power in the electronic age presents a great deal of threat to democratic institutions. Free flowing information and uncensored ideas means sources of information and communication, can build new memories and even new senses of persecution. Social media, for example, has been seen to be an active participant in creating and sustaining social unrest. The enunciation of identities through diasporic public spheres like online forums, have created social communities that question the continued salience of the nation-state. The Russian diaspora in the Baltic states have created an individualised and situational conception of their identity, and therefore Russian propaganda and sharp power is less effective as the assumptions upon which it is based, that ethnic Russians are inherently loyal to Russia and therefore to the Kremlin, is not accepted by the entire diaspora.

In the same way that the influence of soft power has failed in the Baltic states due to identity plurality, so too has misinformation and sharp power, as there is no Kremlin-narrative dominance on the news outlets in Baltic society. The Russian diaspora in the Baltic states have undoubtedly been victim of political marginalisation by the nationalising-states since 1991, and Moscow has sought to utilise this feeling of discontent and spark mobilisation through sharp power and misinformation tactics. The openness of Baltic societies, however, combined with their high resilience to cyber-attacks and their sustained efficiency at shutting down Russian state-led mistruths, has resulted in diasporic communities not being entrapped in the ‘Russkii Mir’ nationalist bubble which would make them ripe for foreign policy influence.

Instead, multiple and fragmented identities have formed among the Russian diaspora through the autonomy seeking practices in their media consumption.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter meets with Mikk Marran, the Permanent Secretary of Defense of the Estonian Ministry of Defense to discuss matters of mutual importance as he arrives the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Cyber Center in Tallinn, Estonia as part of a European trip June 23, 2015. Secretary Carter is traveling in Europe to hold bilateral and multilateral meetings with European defense ministers and to participate in his first NATO ministerial as Secretary of Defense. (Photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

Why the diaspora in the Baltic states are not receptive to Russian influence

What this research has sought to examine, is the Kremlin’s use of hard, soft, and sharp power in its influence attempts on the Russian diaspora in the Baltic states. What it has uncovered, however, is that, unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, the Russian diaspora here has not accepted the ‘Russkii Mir’ concept as promoted by the Kremlin, and hard and sharp power policies are equally as unlikely to produce results. Firstly, hard power policies towards an EU or NATO state is not a viable option. To somehow violate the territorial sovereignty of these member states, who in turn would invoke Article V, is almost inconceivable. Putin may be an authoritarian leader who fails to respect the autonomy of the post-Soviet space, but he is not a belligerent military dictator who will lead Russia into mindless combat and denounce all diplomatic efforts.

This, combined with the Baltic States’ active removal of dependency on Russia for gas and energy, has led to very few options for Russia to exercise coercive influence in this region. Any foreign policies of intervention under the guise of R2P or ensuring territorial sovereignty, like those used in the Caucasus and in Syria, are equally improbable when it comes to the Baltic States. The strands where Russia remains in pole position to assert its dominance is through soft power and the Russkii Mir concept of identity, The Russian Orthodox church, and through the use of sharp power.

Although the Russian diaspora in the Baltic states have been marginalised, actively discriminated against, and seem a ripe target for propaganda, they remain ‘autonomy seeking citizens’ who do not accept Russian-state news blindly, without question or alternative opinion. Numerous authors have reported how lived experiences in the Baltic states are far ‘less ethnicised and rigidly demarked than the rhetoric suggests’, and the marginalisation of the diaspora remains mostly political, and not an everyday experience of discrimination. The Russian diaspora in the Baltic States live in countries who have developed strong transnational connections, benefited from globalisation, and have created a robust infrastructure against Russian influence and sharp power. All of which the Russian diaspora directly benefit from, for example, freedom of movement across Europe, and more access to diverse news sources.

What this research has shown thorough an analysis of opinion polls, is that the Russian diaspora in the Baltic States have an identity that is not the same as ‘Russianness’ found in Russia. They remain ethnic-Russians by self-identification with an appreciation of Russian language and culture, but with Estonian/Latvian/Lithuanian civic identity, they do not experience polarisation and marginalisation in their everyday life, and they simply do not want to collectively mobilise or return to Russia, a homeland they have never known.

This study has reached similar conclusions to that of Laitin’s work in 1998. The Russian diaspora in the Baltic states have shown ties of cultural association with Russia, and there are links which make this population susceptible to Russian influence. What has changed, however, is their lived experience, which has meant an identity with ‘nationalist claims’ has not emerged. As the Soviet generation becomes a distant memory, the younger generation do not feel the same ‘Soviet nostalgia’ and yearning for the Brezhnev era. As they learn about Russia’s past through textbooks and see the social realities of their democratic societies many young Russians now stand with their backs towards Russia.

The civic and ethnic understandings of ‘Russianness’, have allowed the option of dual identity formation among the Russian diaspora. Ideas that you can be a citizen of one culture but ethnically part of an opposing culture, reconfirming Latin’s notion of the ‘Janus-facedness of culture’. Laitin’s conclusions that ‘language is replacing ethnicity as the membership feature of a conglomerate identity of Russians’ have also changed a generation on; whilst remaining a unifying feature amongst the Russian diaspora, language has provided more of an ‘appreciation’ of Russian culture, and not a politically mobilising force.

This does not mean, however, that there is no risk of future influence from the Kremlin, and these Baltic countries have a lot they could learn from one another. There are only 3,400 non-titular citizens residing in Lithuania, 0.1% of the population, in contrast to Estonia and Latvia whose non-titular citizens constitute 6.8% and 10.4% of the population. Nationalising Lithuania used citizenship laws to try to draw in outsiders and encourage social cohesion, Estonia and Latvia chose a different path, however, and sought to keep the Russian diaspora as outsiders. To remove the lure of Russkii Mir romantic nationalism, citizenship programmes should be actively funded and encouraged, through a sustained push to get Russian speakers to learn the national language, knowledge of which has proven to increase civic identity and promote political participation. Similarly, Estonia provides the most Government funded Russian-language media channels, which has helped with the autonomy seeking practices of the Russian diaspora, this should be emulated by Lithuania, who currently has only one hour of Russian language news per-day, and instead focuses efforts on blocking Kremlin-backed disinformation outlets. Finally, culture and language will always be important aspects of identity, and the key to keeping Russian influence at bay in the Baltics, is to separate ‘Russia’ from ‘Russianness’. As Baltic policies have marginalised Russian language and culture, there needs to be an understanding that these things can be culturally appreciated by the diaspora and does not come hand in hand with an appreciation of ‘Russia’ and Kremlin policies. Afterall, how can a diaspora yearn for a homeland they have never known?

This is a special report publication on the Ratiu Forum Blog in commemoration of the 30th anniversary since the fall of the Soviet Union.

If you are interested in hearing more about the post-Soviet region in transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union, then click here to attend our 20:20 Visions Event on ‘The Collapse of The Soviet Union 30 Years On: transition and Soviet legacy’.

Sarah is the Programme Manager for the Central and South-Eastern Europe Programme at LSE IDEAS. She has a BA in Politics and Eastern European Studies from UCL, and an MSc in International Relations from LSE. Her research interests include modern Russian society and politics and the post-Soviet space. Twitter: @Sarah_Coolican