Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is slowly pushing the international media to view countries once occupied by the Soviet Union not through the prism of the Cold War, but as they view themselves.
News from Estonia this week that the country’s parliament had voted overwhelmingly for marriage equality generated headlines around the world. It is, after all, only the second time that a country in emerging Europe has legalised same-sex marriage (Slovenia was the first in 2022).
“My message is that it’s a difficult fight, but marriage and love is something that you have to promote,” Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told the news agency Reuters after the country’s parliament voted for marriage equality.
“We have developed a lot in those 30 years, since we have freed ourselves from the [Soviet] occupation. We are equals among same-value countries,” she added.
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Almost as noteworthy as the news itself was the last sentence of the Reuters report, which read: “Latvia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic countries which were previously annexed by the Soviet Union, have same-sex partnership bills stuck in their parliaments.”
Referring to the three Baltic states as “previously annexed by the Soviet Union” (the first time we have seen the agency use that particular phrase) and not “former Soviet republics” marks real progress, almost as impressive as Estonia’s adoption of marriage equality. (Reuters gets marks deducted, however, for insisting that Estonia is in “Central” Europe).
A trawl through recent Reuters pieces discussing the three Baltic states reveals that the agency has for some time been using the phrase “ruled from Moscow until independence in 1991” (or variations thereof). While this is infinitely preferable to the dreaded “former Soviet republics” it is not as definitive a rejection of Russia’s illegal occupations as “previously annexed by the Soviet Union”.
The same courtesy, alas, is not yet afforded to other states which were once occupied by Russia or the Soviet Union. The latest Reuters piece on Moldova refers to “the former Soviet republic”. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have also recently got the same treatment. For now, it seems, it’s only the Baltics which are free of the epithet “former Soviet republic”.
It is, however, a start and is more progressive than other news outlets which have yet to change their policy. CNN for example this week called Estonia an “ex-Soviet state” while Bloomberg used both “ex-Soviet state” and “former Soviet republic”.
Why it matters
There are three main reasons why use of the terms “ex-Soviet” or “former Soviet” are wrong: they perpetuate stereotypes, they are far too broad, and they are dangerous – dangerous because they lend credence to Russia’s claims that it still has a role to play in the region.
The terms are used to describe a wide range of countries that were once occupied by the Soviet Union but have little else in common. These countries have vastly different histories, cultures, and political systems.
Since independence in 1991 they have taken different paths. Three (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) are members of both the European Union and NATO and are amongst the most prosperous and democratic countries in the world.
Three others (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine) are would-be EU members (and in the case of Georgia and Ukraine, would-be NATO members too). Azerbaijan and Belarus would likely pursue EU membership under democratic governments while Armenia is likely to resuscitate its EU ambitions once it resolves its ongoing dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The five states of Central Asia meanwhile – often lazily lumped together – do not constitute a homogenous grouping. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are slowly, almost reluctantly reforming their economies and political systems, while Kyrgyzstan (once the most democratic of the five) appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Tajikistan remains a nasty dictatorship while Turkmenistan rivals North Korea and Eritrea for the title of the world’s most authoritarian state.
That Russia has never accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union (Vladimir Putin calls it a tragedy) has been underlined by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine – one of Russia’s war aims is to ensure perpetual instability in Ukraine so that it can never join the EU or NATO.
Last month, the Chinese Ambassador to France openly questioned, in a TV interview, the legitimacy of countries once occupied by the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, by saying that they “do not have effective status in international law”.
The best response to this came from Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielijus Landsbergis, who said: “Lithuania never joined the Soviet Union. Moscow illegally occupied our territory, so we resisted until we restored our independence and the Red Army went back home. We’re not former Soviet, we’re never Soviet.”
China’s Foreign Ministry quickly rode back on the statements but too late: the genie was out of the bottle. If senior diplomats of powerful countries question the legitimacy of nation states, parroting Russia’s narrative, this poses a real danger to those nation states and serves to underline why it is so important to make sure that terms such as “ex-Soviet” and “former Soviet republic” are no longer used.
Changing the language
Somewhat ironically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped to speed up this process. The vast majority of media organisations have now formally switched from Kiev, the Russian pronunciation and spelling of Ukraine’s capital to Kyiv – the Ukrainian pronunciation and spelling.
Kyiv is, after all, Ukrainian, not Russian.
Ukraine itself is now firmly just Ukraine, not The Ukraine, which was common before the beginning of the war. The Ukraine is the way the that Russians referred to Ukraine during Soviet times.
Referring to the three Baltic states as “previously annexed by the Soviet Union” and not as “former Soviet republics” is another step along the same path towards defining these countries as they view themselves.
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