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May 31, 2017 | 15:52 GMT

In Eurasia, a New Generation Challenges Russia's Dominance

Young boys walk through Moscow's Red Square in military uniforms March 7. In Eurasia, the remnants of the Soviet era are starting to fade as more and more people are born into a post-Soviet world.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • As the proportion of people born after the Soviet Union's collapse grows in Eurasia, the region will undergo massive political and cultural change.
  • The use of the Russian language will continue to decline in Eurasia, and people in former Soviet countries will grow increasingly intolerant of the corruption and heavy-handed security tactics that have endured since the Soviet period.
  • The combination of demographic, cultural, political and technological changes in former Soviet states will test Russia's ability to project power and influence both at home and in its periphery.

The collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago marked not only the end of an era but also the dawn of a new one. In its wake, the Russian Federation emerged, along with 14 newly independent countries spanning the Eurasian landmass. Former Soviet republics from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus to Central Asia suddenly gained the ability, at least in theory, to pursue their own domestic and foreign policies independent of Russia. And though it had lost its empire, Russia, too, had an opportunity to chart a new course in its economic, social and political development.

But old habits die hard. Over the course of more than 70 years, the Soviet Union ingrained political and cultural characteristics into its member states that were hard to shake. Its citizens were accustomed to life in a centralized political system with low living standards and a high incidence of corruption. These attributes — legacies of the Russian Empire — predated the Soviet Union, and many of them followed its constituent countries into their independence. Despite the nominal switch from communism and a command economy to democracy and capitalism, most former Soviet states, with the exception of the Baltic countries, retained centralized systems of government and adopted only a quasi-capitalist model. The Russian language, meanwhile, maintained its status as a lingua franca throughout Eurasia. Furthermore, Moscow salvaged its ties with countries in the region once it recovered from the chaos of the early post-Soviet period of the 1990s. Russia uses an array of tactics, including military deployments and political manipulation, to project power in the former Soviet Union to this day.

Nevertheless, the remnants of the Soviet era are starting to fade as more and more people are born into a post-Soviet world. The median age today in Russia is just under 40 years old — similar to that in Ukraine and Belarus — meaning the average citizen in these countries spent less than half his or her life under Soviet rule. Only about half the population in Central Asia, where the median age is under 30, experienced Soviet life at all. And in just two decades' time, most people across Eurasia will have no direct experience or memory of the Soviet Union. The change in demographics promises to transform the former Soviet states politically, economically and culturally — and to challenge Russia's influence in these countries.

Already, the generational shift is having an effect on Eurasia. Use of the Russian language, for example, is decreasing throughout the region. Many former Soviet states have de-emphasized the language, which was taught across the Soviet Union for the duration of its existence. Today, Russian is no longer required for students at most schools in Eurasia. Instruction is given in the countries' national languages instead. Students, moreover, often study other foreign languages such as French, German, English and Chinese in lieu of Russian. The use of Russian as a primary language is also on the decline in much of the former Soviet Union. Just under one-quarter of the population in Ukraine primarily used Russian in 2016, according to the Euromonitor group, which uses U.N. and national data sets, compared with 33.9 percent in 1994. The rate in Kazakhstan dropped from 33.7 percent of the population to 20.7 percent over the same time period. And in Georgia, the use of Russian as a primary language fell from 6.4 percent to just 1.1 percent. Of course, a larger proportion of the population, including the younger generations in these countries, still understand and speak Russian as a secondary language. Overall, though, its prevalence is waning.              

As part of this trend, some countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus have moved to phase out the Cyrillic script as well in favor of a Latin alphabet. Turkmenistan undertook the transition shortly after it gained independence; Uzbekistan introduced a similar measure, albeit less successfully, in the early 1990s, and the country currently uses both writing systems. Now Kazakhstan is joining these countries to embark on its own alphabet shift. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev published an article in April proclaiming that all books and official records in the country would be printed in Latin script by 2025. Nazarbayev's administration has been considering the move since the early 1990s, but now that Russian is on the decline in his country, and Kazakh is on the rise, the transition is all but inevitable. And over time, the linguistic changes in Russia's periphery will weaken its cultural influence there.

Political Changes

In the meantime, Russia has a more pressing threat to consider, not just in its traditional sphere of influence, but also within its borders. The post-Soviet generations in Eurasia relate to their respective national governments differently than their Soviet parents and grandparents did, and vice versa. Before Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the reforms of the late Soviet era, criticism of the government, much less public protest, was virtually nonexistent — and for good reason. Dissent against the state, real or perceived, was met with detention, deportation or death. Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies made it possible to publicly question Soviet policy and hold demonstrations for the first time, but the government still regulated protests tightly and dispatched security forces to quell them, often violently. After the Soviet Union's collapse, the newly independent governments in its former constituent states were left to develop their own policies on public dissidence. Many post-Soviet governments in Eurasia (again, with the exception of the Baltic states) maintained a hard line on protests, opting for security crackdowns or pre-emptive arrests to manage opposition or activist groups. Large, peaceful demonstrations remained a rarity in Eurasia for the first decade throughout the 1990s.

Things changed in the mid-2000s, when a wave of revolutions swept Eurasia. Mass demonstrations over unpopular government administrations or disputed election results led to peaceful transfers of power in Georgia in 2003, followed by Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan over the next two years. A far cry from the countries' transitions to independence in the early 1990s, the so-called color revolutions arose from popular dissent rather than from the upper echelons of the Soviet system. During the following decade, the dissent turned violent. Unrest rocked Kyrgyzstan in 2010, when the public rose up to depose a corrupt and nepotistic leader (LINK Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Resurgence). Four years later, demonstrators took to the streets of Kiev to protest the Ukrainian government's decision to rescind an association agreement with the European Union. When security forces cracked down on the protesters, who were mostly students, hundreds of thousands of people joined the demonstrations. The protests became violent after the government refused to step down and to hold early elections; eventually, the Euromaidan movement toppled President Viktor Yanukovich and his administration.

The demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine revealed that people in the countries were no longer willing to tolerate the blatant corruption and heavy-handed security responses that characterized the Soviet era. Several years later, that attitude is spreading to other countries in the former Soviet space. More and more protests are breaking out across Eurasia over issues such as economic stagnation and government corruption. Take, for instance, the recent protests in Belarus. Throughout February and March, thousands of people in cities across the country came out to express their dissatisfaction with Belarus' economic situation and with the government's policies for dealing with it. The spread and sustainability of the demonstrations would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, given President Alexander Lukashenko's grip on security. Yet they continued for months even as the government tried to detain demonstrators while cracking down on activists and opposition groups.

Russia hasn't been immune to the unrest, either. After nearly two decades of political stability and economic prosperity under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian people have come to expect a certain standard of living. The economic recession and corruption scandals that have plagued the country in recent years are becoming less and less palatable to Russians, and particularly younger Russians. In response, people staged large demonstrations in cities across Russia's vast territory in April. The protests were remarkable, both for the number of cities they involved and for the large number of young people, many of them in their 20s, who participated in them.

Technology played a significant role in the demonstrations. Younger Russians rely on the internet and social media to organize and communicate. (Social media has become such an important geopolitical tool, in fact, that the Ukrainian government blocked Russian social networking sites such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki in the country earlier this month, citing national security concerns.) Though Russia, like Belarus, has cracked down on social media, as well as on the demonstrations themselves, authorities will find it increasingly difficult to control the evolving protest movements through conventional means.

Looking Ahead

Throughout much of Eurasia, meanwhile, government leaders are still tied to the Soviet era and its practices. The interaction between governments and their post-Soviet citizens will probably become increasingly contentious and volatile as a result. The struggle will be especially pronounced in Russia, which faces declining demographics on top of its political and cultural shift. Russia's diminishing populace stands to weaken its economic and military position relative to foreign powers competing for influence in Eurasia. By 2050, the United Nations projects that the country's population will fall from 143 million people to 129 million people, a loss of nearly 10 percent. The United States' population, by contrast, is expected to grow by over 20 percent, and those of Turkey and Iran are poised to rise considerably. (Europe's largest countries are projected to end up somewhere between Russia's population growth level and that of the United States.) As Russia's overall population declines, moreover, its ethnic Slavic population will account for a much smaller share of the country's people, further complicating its cultural and political identity.

The challenges it faces at home and abroad will increasingly test Moscow's ability to project influence into its former Soviet periphery and maintain order and stability within its borders. Though the country will doubtless adapt to some of the cultural, social and technological changes underway, the demographic and linguistic shifts will work against Moscow no matter what policies it pursues. And so, as Eurasia's post-Soviet population grows, Russia's position as the region's dominant power is likely to come under increasing threat.

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