REPUBLICATION: The Age of Communalism, the Post-Soviet Nationalist Wars, and Dueling Nationalisms in Ukraine

Photo Eurasia

by Gordon M. Hahn

(first published by Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, 18 May 2014,; see also

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘the end of history’ or Daniel Bell’s ‘the end of ideology,’ the post-Cold War world was not destined to be the end of anything but the Cold War. Communism did not die, it just faded into other ideological fads while maintaining its essence in more discreet form in order to continue challenging free market capitalism and democracy. In fact, the post-Cold War world brought the arrival, or rather the revival of pre- and early industrial ideologies: ethno-national and religious communalism. The historical period in which post-Soviet Eurasia finds itself can be conceptualized as the zenith of the thirty-year post-Soviet nationalist (or communalist) wars, part of perhaps much longer ‘age of communalism.’

Since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, these regions have seen an almost continuous series of wars driven by post-Soviet revivalist nationalism, ultra-nationalism, even neo-fascism. The Ukrainian crisis and slow-burning Russian-Ukrainian civil war are part and parcel of this pulling of the post-Soviet thread.

The rise of intense ultra-nationalism and irredentism across much of the region has now found its penultimate crisis so far in Ukriane; a conflict that puts at risk both regional and international stability and peace. The present Ukrainian conflict, exacerbated by the ambitions and competing national interests in Washington and Moscow, threatens to become not just the worst post-Soviet war to date but a major inter-state war that could touch many of the post-Soviet states, Europe and beyond.

Although nationalism was not the main cause of the Soviet collapse, it played no small role in that outcome. Opposing forces fighting for power in Moscow sought to use nationalist aspirations for sovereignty within, and sometimes outright independence from the USSR to weaken their competitors and win allies in the periphery. Nationalism reared its head early in the perestroika era, and nationalists made sometimes justifiable, sometimes ugly claims. One of the first political demonstrations came in 1986 when a group of Crimean Tatars demonstrated on Red Square for their people’s ‘rehabilitation’ from their 1944 deportation from the peninsula by Stalin. Ironically and perhaps significantly, rehabilitation was only granted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to assuage the Tatars’ dissatisfaction with Crimea’s reunification with Russia.

By 1992 the revival of national identity and an accompanying rise in ultra-nationalism during the USSR’s last years had brought war to all three of the former Soviet ‘union republics’ in the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Azerbaijan and Armenia went to war over the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous republic, an Armenian-dominated enclave entirely embedded within neighboring Azerbaijan. Azeri anti-Armenian pogroms in Sumgait in 1988 and in Azerbaijan’s capitol of Baku in 1990 preceded the 1992-94 war. A resulting cold war or hot truce is frequently punctuated by sometimes fatal cross-border skirmishes and shootings. Negotiations long ago stalled, and renewal of the war remains a real option for both sides.

In Georgia, the political ascension of ultra-nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia from 1988 to his death in 1992 brought a series of additional interethnic clashes and ultimately small wars to the region. Gamsakhurdia and his allies used crude racist rhetoric against Georgia’s ethnic minorities, created heavily armed militias to intimidate and attack them, and stripped their autonomous oblasts (provinces) – Abkhaziya, Ajariya, and South Ossetiya – of their autonomous status at a time when Georgia was seeking independence from Moscow. Running on an ultra-nationalist platform (“Georgia for the Georgians”), Gamsakhurdia and his party won the Georgian presidency with 86 percent of the vote in 1991 and a majority in parliament in 1990, with most Ossetiyans, Abkhazians and Ajarians boycotting the elections. Gamsakhurdia’s dictatorial tendencies soon alienated his supporters, and he was run out of Tbilisi and killed in 1992. By then Georgian-Abkhaz tensions were too high, and Gamsakhurdia’s successor, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, reneged on a late agreement between Gamsakhurdia and the Abkhaz in which a new Abkhazian parliament with a majority of seats set aside for the Abkhazians would be elected, sparking the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz war. It left 10,000 dead and 20,000 wounded.

A smaller, very brief war or set of skirmishes with South Ossetiya left nearly 1,000 killed and some 2,000 wounded. Eventually, all three Goergian autonomies became de facto independent states from the early 1990s until 2005 when Ajariya was brought back under Georgian control. Abkhaziya and South Ossetiya strengthened their de facto independence in the wake of yet another Georgian conflict – the August 2008 South Ossetiyan war. Caused by democratic nationalist Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempts to revive Gamsakhurdia’s ultra-nationalism in moderate form and seize South Ossetiya by force, Georgia lost the war. Russia and a handful of other states recognized Abkhazia’s and South Ossetiya’s state independence. Other nationalist post-Soviet wars include the 1992 Ingushetiyan-North Ossetiyan and Moldovan-Trandniestr wars.

Religious communalism has combined with ethno-nationalism at times to fuel post-Soviet conflicts. The conflicts between Orthodox Christian Georgia and the largely Muslim Abkhaz and between the Orthodox Christian Ossetiyans and Muslim Ingush are cases in point. The 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war contained elements of Tajik nationalism but also democratic and Islamic, even Islamist elements as well. The latter morphed among some into outright jihadism and terrorism expressed in the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which left for Afghanistan after the Tajik war and has carried out terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan as well as in the AfPak area.

In many contexts, Islamism and its violent brother jihadism function as surrogates for ultra-nationalism. In some, the former evolve from the latter, as was the case in post-Soviet Russia’s two Chechen wars. The radical Chechen nationalist separatist movement emerged in the early 1990s, declaring independence from Russia for the ‘Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya’ (ChRI) in 1991. By 1997, during the inter-war period, Al Qa`ida-tied Arabs from Afghanistan and elsewhere had infiltrated the ChRI and established training and indoctrination camps in Chechnya. In July 1999 their local and foreign forces led an invasion of Dagestan, kicking off the second post-Soviet Chechen war. The defeat of the ChRI on the traditional battlefield strengthened the hand of the AQ jihadists and an increasing number of local ones from across the North Caucasus. They came to dominate the ChRI by late 2002. In October 2007 the fully global jihadist-oriented Caucasus Emirate was declared and continues to function to this day, despite hundreds of its mujahedin moving to fight in Syria under AQ-tied groups.

The post-Soviet communalist wars alone have come at high cost. A general estimate based on estimates of the number of killed and wounded in the post-Soviet nationalist and sometimes religious wars (the second Chechen war, in part, and the Caucasus Emirate) is more than half a million casualties – 196,000 killed and 376,000 wounded – in addition to millions of displaced refugees. Thousands of more casualties have occurred as a result of various inter-ethnic riots and pogroms – such as those victimizing Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, Armenians, Azeris, Meskhetiyan Turks, and others in the late USSR and post-Soviet space.

And so we come to Ukraine and Russia. The present crisis has been shaped by the revival of communalism in post-Soviet Eurasia, difficulties for Ukraine and Russia in discerning their national identities and in sorting out of their intermixed Slavic roots and painful histories, and the two countries’ (especially Ukraine’s) location on or near the cusp between different two different civilizations – a higher level category of identity, community, and theoretically communalism – and thus becoming the objects of a tussle between East and West.

The rise of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism has played a key role in the development of the conflict. Both have been driven by policies in the West (European or ‘Atlantic’ civilization) and Russia (perhaps, Slavic or Eurasian civilization), in particular NATO and EU expansion and Moscow’s reaction to it. Both Ukrainian and Russian nationalism – and in many cases chauvinism and neo-fascism – have been encouraged by the East-West tussle over Ukraine. The West through its silence endorsed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushenko’s anti-Russian campaign, disguised as an anti-Soviet one, designed to provide foundational myths for Ukrainian nation- and state-building. It succeeded in some ways to consolidate an Ukrainian national identity, but one that is largely ethnic Ukrainian rather than civic one and therefore alienates many Russians, Transcarpathian Rusyns, and to some extent even Tatars.  The campaign was based on two pillars that were particularly noxious to ethnic Russians. First was the full rehabilitation of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement (UNO), and the Waffen SS Galician Corps. Second was blaming or at least strongly associating Russia and Russians with the 1930s Soviet famine in Ukraine, rather than blaming it on the internationalist communist ideology or its ethnic Georgian Soviet leader, Iosif Stalin. This ideological element facilitated the rise of Oleg Tyagnibok’s ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and anti-Russian ‘Svoboda’ or ‘Freedom’ Party, which won 10 percent in the national parliament in the most recent vote after garnering much higher percentages in western Ukrainian provincial parliaments.

When the Maidan revolution began last year, both the government and opposition played into extremism’s hands. The democratic and moderate nationalist parties strengthened their previous alliance with Tyagnibok’s Svoboda and on the streets established a new one with the even more extremist ‘Right Sector’. It infiltrated Maidan, led the violent demonstrations and seizures of government buildings that came to mark the latter stages of the revolt, and played the lead role in the violation of the February 21st government-opposition agreement brokered by the EU and Russia by seizing more buildings.

At the same time, former President Viktor Yanukovich or is supporters deployed the special police force ‘Berkut’ and the so-called ‘titushki’, both of which engaged in violence similar to that wrought by Right Sector and therefore were responsible for the first violence and instance of serious polarization. Who organized the February 18-20 sniper attacks remains unclear to this day.

After the seizure of power, the new Maidan regime confirmed ethnic Russians’ worst fears when its first act was to repeal a law giving the Russian language some support. Moreover, the ‘vanguard role’ in the overthrow of Yanukovich played by the notorious Right Sector and other smaller neo-fascist groups earned the former six top posts in the provisional Ukrainian government, including the posts of Interior Minister and chairman of the Security Council. Right Sector leader Dmitro Yarosh was astonishingly offered the Security Council deputy chairmanship, which he turned down. Yarosh has demanded that the government send what is left of the Ukrainian army into the eastern provinces to kill the almost entirely peaceful resistance forces, and former Ukrainian Prime Minister and ‘Fatherland’ Party leader Yulia Timoshenko’s discussed the murder 8 million Russians in a phone call. At one recent Ukrainian ‘patriotic’ rally for youth attended by several thousand teenagers in western Ukraine, the rally leaders organized a chant: “One nation, One country, One Fatherland! Hang the Muscovites! Whoever does not chant is a Muscovite.” The chant uses the derogatory term ‘Moskal’ for ‘Russian’ and ‘Muscovite’, and the students all jump up and down in hysteric unison. (

On the other side, The rise of anti-Russian elements in Kiev led inexorably to mass demonstrations for reunification with Russia in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia’s stealth annexation of Crimea, the oblast administrations’ and other government buildings’ takeovers in eastern Ukraine, and the declaration of the very pro-Russian ‘Donetsk Republic’ and ‘Lugansk Republic’ as the core of a largely ethnic Russian-led resistance to the provisional government in Kiev. A certain Russian nationalism is expressed in calls by a minority within the eastern resistance to secede from Ukraine to Russia.

Putin’s new Russian patriotism has sometimes encouraged a dangerous chauvinism. From the ‘Nashi’ (‘Ours) youth street gang-like pro-Kremlin youth movement of the early 2000s, to the tolerance of the Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal Democratic Party, to the recent anti-American media campaigns and Putin’s use of the term ‘national traitors’ in his March 18th speech, Putinism has played a role – if inadvertent at times – in the rise of Russian ultra-nationalism in some circles both in Russia and now among some in the eastern Ukrainian resistance movement. On the other hand, Russian courts began to crackdown severely on Russian ultra-nationalists beginning in 2008.

Anti-semitism exists on both sides in the present Ukrainian crisis. For now, it is clearly more pronounced on the side of those who support the Maidan provisional government, given the role of Right Sector and the Freedom Party. Unfortunately, this is little discussed in Western media or by Western governments of late, though a couple of years ago the EU condemned the rise of the Freedom Party into the mainstream Ukrainian politics in no uncertain terms.

On the other hand, there is not much of a shortage of anti-semitism on the Russian side. A recent article on the Russian website SVPress, engaged in somewhat veiled anti-Semitism in reporting on the April 24th SS Waffen Galicia Corps’ march in Lviv: “Yarosh gave a major press conference to local media at the ‘Dnepro-Info’ news agency which belongs to the present Denpropetrovsk governor and president of the European Jewish Union, Igor Kolomoiskii. This co-founder of ‘Private Bank’ continues to pay $10,000 for each head of a ‘separatist moskal.’ Already eight Judases have been found, who sold their brothers to Kolomoiskii’s mercenaries” (a reference to the eight pro-Russian resistance men killed by the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine). In this Russian anti-semitic response to a Ukrainian neo-fascist march we see in microcosmic form how the ‘ultras’ (ultra-nationalists) on both sides are feeding each other, driving events and helping to rapidly polarize Ukraine.

It is noteworthy as well that there are different religious orientations, on the one hand, in largely Russian Orthodox Christian eastern Ukraine and, on the other hand, in Ukrainian Orthodox Christian and Uniate Catholic western Ukraine, where Ukrainian ultra-nationalism is the strongest. Thus, there is an, albeit secondary, element of religious communalism in the Ukrainian crisis.

The history of post-Soviet ultra-nationalism comes full circle in a report that Georgian nationalists are being mobilized to fight on the Ukrainian side against the Russians and are financed by the Georgian NGO ‘Free Zone’ and the ‘United National Movement’, Georgia’s once ruling party led by then Georgian President, now Tufts University professor, Mikheil Saakashvili. Should it expand, this trend holds the potential for a wider post-Soviet ultra-nationalist conflagration.

Therefore, it is crucial that the U.S. and Russian governments each condemn explicitly the extremists on both sides – whether they are allied with Maidan Kiev or with the Russian-dominated eastern resistance. This means the U.S. must not repeat its selective condemnation of extremism in the southeast as occurred when the Secretary of State raised the issue of the anti-semitic leaflets of no known origin that appeared in Donetsk, as if they were distributed by the rebel Donetsk Republic and after months of Right Sector and other neo-Nazi violence and provocations from Maidan Kiev’s camp. The U.S. must publicly demand the disarming and arrest of Right Sector thugs who refuse to disarm or who have committed murders and other crimes. The Kremlin and Russian state media should cease characterizing the entire Maidan revolution and provisional government as fascist; something that whips up inordinate fears in the east.

The fire of ethnic hatreds is running strong, and it will be difficult to put out. Unless both sides move to contain their extremists rather than ignore them or encourage them, it not only will be difficult, it will be impossible to disarm the conflicting sides. In that case, the matter will end in insurgent and civil war or worse.

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