Conflict and Leadership
Thirty Years of Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet States: Have they Come of Age?

Together with my fellow Valdai Club experts, we are conducting a study of the foreign policy experience of the post-Soviet states, which should soon culminate in the publication of a report. As we observe the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union, enough time has passed for us to assess the effectiveness of the foreign policy strategies of all post-Soviet states. While 30 years is a short period from a historical perspective, the delimitation of states according to certain models of national strategy is already noticeable; here we have discerned three groups.

The first group of countries pursued a course towards nationalism in foreign policy. The nationalist model is based on a black-and-white picture of the world that allows much to achieve and to act with great energy in international politics. Such a model, of course, is demonstrated today by Ukraine, which, in spite of the opinions of its neighbours, is trying unceremoniously to look for an independent way to resolve the crisis in the east of the country. The nationalist model also has its costs: constant mobilisation of the public around the image of the “Other enemy”, pressure from nationalist circles on the elite, and balancing on the brink of sliding into a major international conflict. This creates great risks for the country: social antagonism, a split in the political class, problems with neighbours, and, in general, unclear prospects for obtaining the desired result.

The second group of countries followed the path of liberalisation - at least the elites of these countries think so, although this can often come down to nationalist mimicry. According to the elites of such countries, their main problem is their geography. They would like to be somewhere in Central or Western Europe, but happened to be, for example, in the Caucasus. The best example is Georgia. The key metaphor of Georgian foreign policy can be formulated as follows: "The country, cut off from the European continent in the past, seeks to return home." This narrative can be easily found in strategic planning documents and in the discourse of Tbilisi's intellectual elites. In part, this model is also being built by Armenia, with the only exception that the Armenian elite perceives the liberal European experience functionally – through the imitation of certain practices of state administration. The complementarism of Armenia's foreign policy has not gotten it anywhere, and the aggravation of the Karabakh conflict in 2020 only actualised this strategy.

The third group of states builds their foreign policy strategy from the standpoint of pragmatism. Of course, such countries should include Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which are developing relations with both Eastern and Western neighbours. However, from the point of view of ideology, such a model of behaviour has a serious drawback: there is always an opponent who will point to the sterility of such a policy, and the absence of a big idea and values. On the other hand, in the modern world, the line between a big idea and messianism is blurred, and the transition of the former to the latter carries great risks.

An evaluation of measures of the effectiveness of the strategic course of the new post-Soviet states can be made according to three basic features.

First, the foreign policy of these states is successful because these states continue to exist. Let's not forget that the collapse of the USSR marked a rather risky experiment for the post-Soviet countries; many of them did not have sufficient experience in state building. The preservation of their sovereignty after 30 years of independence is quite a remarkable achievement.

Second, the foreign policy of these states may be assessed as successful if they managed to preserve their territorial integrity. According to this characteristic, the states of the post-Soviet space were divided into two camps: those who retained control over their borders, and those who lost some of their sovereignty over certain regions.

Third, the policies of these states are successful if their political elites manage to cope with the key challenges of their statehood - internal ones. It's time to admit that the only post-Soviet state for which the main challenges lie in the foreign policy agenda is Armenia. For the rest of the states, domestic political challenges remain decisive for assessing the success of their state experiment.

All the new states of Eurasia - fragments of the Soviet Union - are united by the presence of Russian communities, which in the overwhelming majority of post-Soviet countries have become the largest national minority. This circumstance has become a significant internal political challenge and an additional factor in relations between these countries and Russia. Many states have to balance between nationalist circles and the need to ensure the rights of the Russian minority. The incomplete nature of the collapse of the USSR echoes current politics and complicates the equation of successful foreign policy for the young states. Will we be able to state in next 30 years, that all of the state experiments, which began in 1991, have been successful?

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.