Stalin's Poison Pills

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A lot of attention was focused on the symbolic importance when Russian forces occupied Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. Few reflected, however, that this conflict, like many others in the post-Soviet states, is the product of what many in business call "poison pills," arrangements that make it difficult, if not dangerous, for anyone to try to takeover or even change the basic arrangements of another firm.

If the peoples of the region and the international community are to overcome this crisis and the others that are clearly on the horizon in this part of the world, they need to understand the nature and location of the poison pills Stalin inserted in his system and the dangers of swallowing them.

When Stalin created the Soviet Union -- and it was his project far more than anyone else's -- he built it on the basis of politicized, territorialized and hierarchically arranged ethnicity, a system that could function only if Moscow used the kind of force that Stalin deployed with such consistent viciousness.

Before the 1917 Revolution, many people in the Russian Empire did not identify themselves in ethnic terms. The tsarist state did not encourage them to do so, and many saw themselves in terms of class or faith. But Stalin insisted that everyone have an official nationality because he understood that you cannot play the divide-and-rule politics of building an empire if people don't identify themselves as members of one or another nationality.

Moreover, Stalin linked nationality to territory, something the tsars had tried in almost every case to avoid. No book was more important during Soviet times than the periodic editions of the administrative-territorial divisions of the country. That is because your rights as a member of an ethnic group depended on whether Moscow gave you the status of an autonomous formation or a union republic.

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But there was one more aspect to this. Many people believe that Stalin drew the lines so as to put all or most members of a given nationality together. This is nonsense. He drew lines to create tensions between ethnic groups, ensuring there was always a local minority that would do Moscow's bidding in return for being protected by the Soviet center. The Armenian-dominated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan is the most famous of these arrangements, but it is far from the only one.

And finally, Stalin instituted the Orwellian principle that "all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others," an arrangement that guarantees interethnic hatred. Members of small nationalities without a territory got few or no ethnic or linguistic rights and were slated for absorption by others. Members of larger groups got such rights on their territories but nowhere else. But members of the largest nationality -- the Russians -- got such rights regardless of where they lived.

What were the consequences of this system? First, Stalin's system not only raised the importance of nationality and borders, but it ensured that anyone who sought to dismantle his totalitarianism would have to cope with ethnic anger and borders that guaranteed it would likely get worse.

Second, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did reduce the level of coercion and introduced glasnost, he guaranteed that the Soviet Union would fall into pieces, not along economic lines or regional ones but precisely along the lines Stalin had drawn.

And third, when the Soviet Union collapsed, both the Russian leadership and the international community, largely because they hoped to make the process of imperial decay as easy and peaceful as possible, decided to accept certain aspects of Stalin's system -- namely, the borders he drew and the ethnic hierarchy he established -- while expecting that other aspects of Stalin's system, his tyranny, be jettisoned.

Why did this happen? For many, it was simpler and more convenient than doing anything else. Many in Western governments had no idea about the location, let along the character, of the union republics, and even fewer knew about the autonomous ones. It was easier to accept the union republics as the only possible countries and their borders as the only acceptable ones, especially since addressing the bigger problems would have taken a long time.

And further, any focus on autonomous republics and their rights would have put at risk in the first instance the Russian Federation. After all, maps showed that 53 percent of the territory of that republic was covered by non-Russian autonomies. Addressing its imperial nature, many feared, could trigger "a nuclear Yugoslavia."

But what has that decision meant? Most obviously, it has meant that few have been prepared to focus on the legitimate rights of ethnic minorities who feel they are trapped within a larger country or to consider that Stalin's borders were not designed to resolve conflicts but to intensify them. Anyone who looks around Eurasia will see that in many countries, and in Russia above all, the demands of minorities are only growing, and border tensions are on the increase.

But that 1991 decision has had another consequence, which continues to reverberate throughout the region. Stalin made his system work by means of an authoritarian state. Just because so many people wished for an end to authoritarianism has not guaranteed in Russia or elsewhere that this would happen, and his commitment to ethnocratic arrangements in which one ethnic group dominates others continues as a policy imperative, again regardless of what anyone wants.

The events in Georgia are only the latest example of what happens because governments and peoples in the region continue to be forced 17 years after the end of the Soviet Union to swallow Stalin's poison pill. These events will not be the last. And the ones ahead, including more ethnic conflicts and more authoritarianism, will not only be more serious but will affect the Russian Federation first of all.

Paul Goble is director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku.