Three Countries, Three Choices in Post-Soviet Eurasia

The experience of three states of the former Soviet Union in the shadow of post-Soviet Russia, says HBS Professor Rawi Abdelal, shows that nationalism plays a far greater role in economic policy than has generally been recognized.
by Martha Lagace

Why have various countries of the former Soviet Union taken such dramatically different economic paths since the Union's breakup? This has been a lingering puzzle of the post-Cold War period.

Lithuania, for instance, has turned its attention westward, pursuing economic autonomy from Russia. Belarus, on the other hand, has tried to draw itself closer than any other former Soviet republic to Russia. Belarus is, as HBS Professor Rawi Abdelal writes in a new working paper, "the quintessential status quo state in Eurasia."

And Ukraine, the biggest of the three, both in size (it is nearly Texas to Lithuania's West Virginia) and in economic might (second only to Russia in the region) has tried to tread—apparently with ambivalence—a middle ground between Russia and the West. As Abdelal points out, the choices of these post-Soviet governments clearly did not derive from their relative power in the region.

An explanation, rather, lies in nationalism: in the degree to which these countries constructed and embraced their own concepts of national identity and allowed such concepts to influence economic policy.

As Abdelal argues in his working paper, titled "Nationalism and International Political Economy in Post-Soviet Eurasia," nationalism powerfully influences the world economy, particularly in post-imperial societies. National identities can—and in the case of the former Soviet Union, did—affect economic relations among states.

Yet scholarly research and theoretical frameworks of international political economy (IPE) to date have not adequately recognized nationalism's real sway. (See sidebar, "Dueling Theories of IPE.")

By analyzing the effects of nationalism on the three countries above, which represent the three apparent patterns of choice in the former Soviet Union, Abdelal has developed a solid basis from which to challenge, and fine-tune, the prevailing "Nationalist Perspective" in the study of international political economy. Refining theoretical distinctions is essential, says Abdelal. Current theories, by downplaying the meaning and importance of nationalism itself, do not suffice to explain why one country chooses to pull away from Russia, another rushes toward it, and a third tries to do both.

The Invention Of Nationalism

What is nationalism? Nations, national identities and nationalisms are all inventions. A national identity is a collective identity of a particular kind: an identity shared among a population and shaped by historical memory and cultural symbols. National identity can include components of language, ethnicity and religion.

"Nationalism is the use of the symbol of the nation for specific political, economic and cultural purposes," Abdelal writes. "It is the nation connected to a project."

Nationalism can propel economic policy in four ways. It sets a direction for policy, partly in response to a perceived "Other." It places economic policy within the context of a larger social purpose connected with protecting and cultivating the nation. It gives citizens a reason to sacrifice in pursuit of a higher national goal. And it expands the "time horizons" for a country's leaders and offers a compelling view of the future.

Content And Contestation

National identities vary from society to society in two ways, says Abdelal: in their content and contestation. Content means self-understandings and goals that are cultural, political and economic. Contestation indicates whether the goals within a given society are widely shared, or not.

This was the test for Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. They had to navigate the fast-changing and fluid post-Cold War world economy by choosing either Europe and the European Union, or Eurasia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. But how were their national identities going to help them decide?

Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine all began from more or less the same starting point. After the Soviet Union collapsed, all post-Soviet states were quite dependent economically on Russia. In each country, the titular ethnic group was the overwhelming majority, comprising at least 73 percent of the population. Economic links with the west were few. All three were relatively advanced economically compared to other nations in the former Soviet Union, so they seemed best prepared to make an economic transition to independent statehood. None of them—unlike regions in Central Asia and the Caucasus-faced serious internal upheaval or violence.

And, Abdelal contends, mainstream nationalists in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine in the first post-Soviet decade had nearly identical ideologies and foreign policy goals.

For nationalists in all three countries, Russia was the historical "Other," the nation against which they had to defend themselves. All considered Russia a threat, not so much because they feared a military invasion over their borders, but rather because they dreaded any repercussions of economic dependence on Russia. All were strongly pro-European. It is Abdelal's belief that if Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists had had their way, their states' foreign economic strategies during the 1990s would have been nearly identical.

For him, the political economy of post-Soviet international relations revolved around one basic question: "Did post-Soviet societies and politicians agree with their nationalists, or not?" The views of former communists-who rose to power in all three states—were crucial, as it turned out.

Lithuania Embraces Nationalism

"The arguments of nationalists matter most when the rest of society agrees with them," Abdelal points out. "In Lithuania, the rest of society agreed."

The national identity of Lithuania was so coherent, in fact, that no influential political party contradicted Lithuanian nationalists. Even though the LDDP party—the successor party to the Communist Party—won elections over the nationalists in 1992, it is remarkable that these former communists did not dispute the basic foreign-policy objectives of the nationalists concerning reorientation toward the west.

"The widely shared content of national identity [in Lithuania] gave both government and society the political will to endure the economic sacrifice of reorienting toward Europe," Abdelal writes. "The central theme of Lithuania's economic policies was the victory of the long view over the short."

Pragmatic Belarus

Belarus after 1991 was larger, richer and stronger than Lithuania. Belarus even had nuclear weapons. But it never even tried to pursue autonomy from Russia. Belarusian citizens simply did not share their nationalists' interpretation of their collective identity: they were more inclined to adhere to pan-Slavic or lingering Soviet identities than to a distinctively "Belarusian" one. Citizens also did not like the nationalists' anti-Russian, pro-European content.

"Put most simply," Abdelal writes, "Belarus's fragmented national identity allowed economics to influence the foreign policy orientation of the country directly, unmediated by higher purposes of state."

In 1994, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko even insisted, despite criticism from nationalists, that it was "absolutely" in Belarus's interest to cling to Russia, and that such interest was clearly calculable.

"As always," he declared, "the opposition criticizes me for this ... saying that I am selling out our interest. You know, I'm an economist, not a photographer. I understand perfectly well what interest is. Interest is subject to accounting."

Nationalists, in stark contrast, never think that the national interest is subject to accounting. For them it derives from history, memory and culture.

Ukraine Is Divided

Ukraine, second only to Russia in material indicators of power in the region, initially pursued a policy of radical economic autonomy from Russia. But it did not sustain its efforts to reorient its economy toward the west.

Nationalism could not manage a united front. Ukrainians in various parts of the country, as it turned out, contested the content of Ukrainian national identity differently. And the politics of language—Ukraine is divided into three linguistic groups that cut across ethnic boundaries—complicated matters.

"Ukraine's national identity was too contested and fragmented regionally for the government to make a decisive break from the CIS and toward Europe, as did the Baltics," writes Abdelal. "At the same time, Ukraine's nationalism was too well-developed to be marginalized while the government sought to sell political autonomy for economic gain, as did Belarus."

A purely pro-western or pro-eastern foreign policy would have divided the country, since the first requires economic costs that east Ukrainians were not willing to bear. The second was not acceptable to west Ukrainians for reasons of identity.

"Ukraine therefore compromised its economic nationalism because of domestic politics," Abdelal notes.

"post-imperial Moments"

While other theories in international political economy are certainly important, Abdelal believes, a theory based on national identity has the advantage of explaining the variety of results that occurred in post-Soviet society. While he does not claim that his renewed Nationalist Perspective can apply to all contexts of world politics, it should certainly be considered vis-a-vis political economy for post-imperial societies.

"Nationalisms rise as empires fall," he writes. "New states necessarily have fluid identities, which societies are in the process of choosing. And the sovereignties of new states in post-imperial contexts tend to be externally contested."

The twentieth century is filled with post-imperial moments, he concludes.

"The 1990s, 1960s, 1950s and 1920s were fundamental turning points in the history of Eurasia, Africa, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe. Nationalism was a central influence on how they turned out."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.