The USSR was an unusual
empire: in its policies toward the non-Russian republics the
emphasis was on socioeconomic and cultural development rather than
crude exploitation of the resources and populations of the ethnic
fringes. In the postwar period ethnic elites evolved into organized
groups with their own identity and interests. They became the prime
movers of the Soviet disintegration.
The period from 1991 to 2005 may be interpreted
as the transition from empire to new nation states.
During that period Russia used its traditional "imperial" approach
in dealing with the former sister republics. It supported the
economies of its former "colonies" in return for political loyalty
and hopes of reintegration.
However, during the transitional period national
identity in the new states was being formed on the principle "we are
not them" (i.e., not Russia or Russians) and on distancing from the
former imperial centre. The process of nation building in the
republics soon brought to the fore pro-Western and nationalist
forces. Leaders of the new generation of politicians, such as
Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia or Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, used
nationalism and Western support to stage "orange revolutions" and to
remove from power "pro-Russian" clans.
The generation change has affected Russia's own
attitude toward these countries. Putin's generation of Russian
politicians is less sentimental about Soviet "shared legacy." The
emphasis now is on promoting Russia's economic interests. Subsidies
and barter in relations with the former union republics are replaced
by market relations. Under Putin, the relations between Russia and
its former sister republics are being gradually transformed into
normal ties between nation states.
As Russia emerges from the shadows of its
imperial predecessor it is learning to keep in check its
"neo-imperialist" instincts as it moves into the "post-imperial"
stage in its relations with the new independent states. Russia has
sufficient resources to compete successfully for the influence in
the near abroad with other global players, such the United States,
European Union, and China. Ultimately, Russia's successful
modernization will be the most reliable basis for its continued
economic and cultural influence in the region.