The Stalinist system across Eastern Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Union proved incapable of solving the national question. As Gorbachev’s policies of “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” exposed and worsened the economic situation in the USSR*, the tensions that existed across the region and that led to the collapse of the Soviet system often revealed themselves as ethnic and national conflicts.
Aiten Yakubova, Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa (ISA in Russia)
“Can a people be genuinely free, if it is oppressing other peoples?” —Leon Trotsky
In February 1990, the pro-independence Sąjūdis movement won a two thirds majority in elections to Lithuania’s Supreme Soviet. A month later, the country declared independence from the Soviet Union. By May, Estonia and Latvia, the two other Baltic states followed. Just a year later, in April 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to organize a new “Union of Sovereign States” comprised of 10 former Soviet republics. This move provoked the Soviet hardliners to launch the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991, the failure of which opened the doors for the capitalist counter revolution.
The Russian empire before the 1917 revolution with nearly 200 different nationalities and ethnic groups was what Trotsky called “a disgusting legal tangle of medieval mockeries of outsiders”.
The February revolution did not resolve this problem, but it allowed the oppressed classes and nations of Russia to speak openly about their difficulties. The Provisional government that came to power as a result of the February revolution, originally promised to address the question, but when words moved to deeds and it published its position on the rights of nations for presentation to the Constituent Assembly, it described Russia, using Tsarist terminology as “one and indivisible”.
What was done after the October revolution? It took less than a week for the new Soviet government to recognize Finland’s right to independence. This was quickly followed by support for the independence of Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Estonia, Transcaucasia, Belarus, Poland and Latvia.
Special attention was paid to the development of national cultures, in particular, languages. Lenin would get quite angry when he heard that Soviet officials, especially those from the centre, continued to use Russian in those areas where Russian was not the local language.
But the Stalinist bureaucracy that seized power in the 1920–30s had a different approach. It destroyed all elements of workers’ democracy that had been introduced by the Bolsheviks, and rather than treat the different nationalities that made up the USSR with sensitivity, preferred instead the random division of ethnic regions based on administrative convenience. In addition, there was huge resentment at the Stalinist policy of the forced collectivization of land, which led to a horrendous famine across Ukraine, a large part of Russia and Kazakhstan in 1932–3. This was compounded by the takeover of the three Baltic states and part of Moldova by the Soviet Union following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. Other nationalities such as the Chechens and Crimean Tatars were deported en-masse during the war.
The legacy of Stalin’s national policy
It is impossible to understand the nationality question in the USSR in the 1980s without realizing that the national policies of Stalin left deep-rooted scars. Already by 1986, there were protests with nationalist slogans. In Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic in Northern Siberia, the frustration of local youth at discriminatory policies implemented by Moscow against national minorities boiled over into rioting after a fight broke out between Sakha youth and visitors from Moscow. Later that year, three days of rioting, known as Jeltoqsan in Alma-Ata, then capital of Soviet Kazakhstan followed the sacking by Gorbachev of the Kazakh head of the Republic and his replacement by a Russian national.
At the same time, other oppressed nationalities started to demand the restoration of historical justice and the return of land and property that had earlier been taken from them. A particularly vivid example is that of the Crimean Tatars, who had been deported from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944 by Stalin, who thought they would support a German occupation. Tatar activists even managed to organize a protest in Moscow’s Red Square in July 1987. This was one of the first times when a protest in Moscow was, if not allowed, at least tolerated. Gorbachev announced that a special commission headed by long-time Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko would investigate the issue, which still referred to the Tatars as “Nazi collaborators” but admitted that the “indictment and eviction of the entire population had been unjust”. Only in 1989 did the Crimean Tatars gain the possibility of returning to the Crimea, where they still today face repression and discrimination.
Many peoples began to raise the question of changing the borders of their republics, of raising their status within the federation, or even demanding the right of their Union republic to secede from the USSR. This was the case with the three Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Moldova and Georgia. In other cases, there were demands to leave the Union republic to which they belonged to join another. This was the demand of the overwhelmingly Armenian autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which wanted to leave Azerbaijan, and the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which demanded the right to leave Georgia. Within the Russian Federation, there were strong movements demanding sovereignty in the oil rich Republic of Tatarstan in Central Russia and in Chechnya in the Caucasus. This was described as the “Parade of sovereignties of autonomous republics”, which was to a large degree encouraged by Russian President Boris Yeltsin after the collapse of the USSR, as part of the process of breaking up the former Soviet state apparatus.
There were also several regions in which the majority of the population was Russian speaking (as opposed to Russian) in the other Union republics as happened in Transdniestra in Moldova and Crimea in Ukraine.
Legal changes — too little, too late
Although the Soviet constitution formally guaranteed the right to self-determination, there was no legislation nor procedures enabling the Union republics to secede from the USSR for the simple reason that the Stalinist bureaucracy had no intention of granting this right. Nor were there any means for ethnic groups who were dissatisfied with their status or wanting to change the borders of republics and regions to express their will. This was because all the national and territorial problems were supposed to have been fairly resolved long before. However, the growth of ethno-national conflicts demonstrated that this was not so. But any attempt by Gorbachev to ease the situation by easing central control and passing new laws only encouraged protests and made matters worse.
An attempt in April 1990 to pass a new law for the USSR defining how Union republics could secede just introduced a complex and long-winded procedure. It did allow autonomous republics to raise the question of improving their status to the level of Union republic without the agreement of their former republic but this placed under question the stability of the Union republics and rather than resolving tensions, merely sharpened them. A year later, the Russian Federation passed a law allowing for the rehabilitation of “the repressed peoples”, which condemned the Stalinist repression of whole peoples and restoring their historical rights. But this law simple acted as a catalyst for many new conflicts as it allowed for the return of the repressed peoples to the lands they had lost. These lands were in most cases being used by other groups. The law did nothing to define how such conflicts of interest could be resolved and, in reality, simply set one ethnic group against another. These new laws proved inadequate for the solution of national conflicts.
But no law or change in approach by the Kremlin could have stopped the break-up of the USSR by the late 1980s. The process of capitalist restoration during which the Soviet bureaucracy transferred the state owned economy into private ownership caused firstly, a deepening of the economic crisis, which simply led to a sharpening of social problems and dissatisfaction, and secondly to a deepening of the process of the decentralization of authority. It gave local elites, including national elites, many of whom were already looking for capitalist solutions, hope that they could improve their own position by leaning on the national aspirations of their people. In most cases, neither the regional nor the national elites were prepared to conduct a constructive economic policy, but they were prepared to whip up national contradictions, hoping in that way to maintain control over their people.
At the same time, that part of the Soviet elite who opposed the rapid transition to “market”, preferring instead “the Chinese path” resisted the decentralization, often leaning on the Russian speaking populations in the other republics. In this way the conflict between those who wanted the “shock therapy” path to capital restoration as opposed to the “Chinese way” was played out as a conflict between different nationalities. In other places, this conflict simply degenerated into a conflict between different clans or power centers within the ruling elite.
In this way by the end of the 1980s, various hot-spots of ethnic conflict developed in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Moldova, Crimea, the Volga region and southern Russia. From 1988 to 1991, there were over 150 inter-ethnic conflicts in the former USSR, in at least twenty of them people died.
In 1989, a conflict developed in Moldova. Opposition to Moscow rule led to mass protests headed by the Moldovan Popular Front. Initially arguing for “perestroika”, “glasnost” and “democratization”, in other words the main planks of Gorbachev’s reform program in Moscow, it presented its main demands as the restoration of Moldovan culture. Following mass protests in the capital Chisinau, increasingly demands were raised to make Moldovan the single state language. The population who lived along the banks of the River Dniestra, mainly Russian speakers (not necessarily Russians) in Transdniestra and the Christian Turks in Gagauzia objected to this as discrimination against their languages.
In Transdniestra, there were demonstrations and strikes, and the local government bodies began to refuse orders from Chisinau, and to even sabotage government decisions. The Moldovan leadership resorted to force to resist the opposition. In October 1990, a “March on Gagauzia” was organized in which several thousand nationalistic volunteers under the leadership of Mircha Druka attempted to prevent local elections taking place. The Gagauzians took up arms and organized self-defense squads.
A new escalation of the conflict occurred after the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow. The Republic of Moldova declared its independence from the USSR, and in turn a referendum was held in Transdniestra, in which the overwhelming majority supported secession from Moldova. The region’s population, consisting of Ukrainians, Russians and Moldovans were, in part worried by the attempts of the Moldovan Popular Front to merge the country with Romania. This, they associated with the period of WWII, when the rulers of “Greater Romania” supported Hitler. By 1992, the conflict had grown into an open military confrontation between the Moldovan army and Transdniestran forces. Although unofficially, the Russian 14th Army, located in Transdniestra supported the local population and, in effect, ensured the defeat of the Moldovan side, it then held back from further action. The conflict to this day remains “frozen”, and Transdniestra has remained a source of tension. Meanwhile, both Transdniestra’s leadership and Russian oligarchs use the republics unrecognized status for money laundering, the level of corruption is very high.
Ethno-national conflicts in Central Asia started with the bloody events of the Fergana Valley, a very fertile, cotton-growing region that was artificially divided by Stalin between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 1944, Turks living in the Meskhetian region of Georgia were forcibly deported to Uzbekistan. By the end of the 1980s, national tensions began to rise in Uzbekistan. Representatives of the “titular” nation, the majority Uzbeks began to claim advantageous rights over land and other resources. In May 1989, mass fighting broke out between Uzbeks and Turks which developed into pogroms.
Even though the rioting starting as a clash between nationalities, it quickly spread into attacks on government and communist party buildings and spread across the republic affecting even the capital — Tashkent.
It took 15,000 riot troops to bring the situation back under control. Fifteen thousand Turks were forced to flee to Russia, over 100 people were killed and a thousand wounded.
The massacre in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in June 1990 was provoked by the inability of the local Soviet leadership to solve the severe economic difficulties which were causing tension between the Kyrghyz minority and the better-off Uzbek population. When the whole country was moving towards free market reforms, the conflict was driven by who would take over the land from former collective farms. Moreover, the Uzbek majority were demanding administrative and cultural autonomy. Tens of thousands of people were dragged into the armed conflict and although there are no direct numbers of victims, it is thought the figure runs into thousands.
In Tadjikistan, February 1990, mass rioting broke out in the capital, Dushanbe. This started as an anti-Armenian demonstration in reaction to the arrival of refugees from the conflict in Azerbaijan. But it soon developed into an armed confrontation and the pillaging of the local population. In effect, this was a struggle between different clans in the Tadjik leadership, which was only ended after troops were sent in.
But this was just a precursor to the outbreak of a bloody civil war in Tadjikstan from 1992–7, during which more than 60,000 people died and about a million became refugees. The Tadjik ruling elite in Soviet times still largely rested on former clan loyalties. The government was dominated by figures from the capital Leninabadi, with the police controlled by those from Kulob. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the policies of Moscow were increasingly challenged by a layer of intelligentsia with increasing illusions in the liberal free market. They were joined in Tadjikistan by a resurging Islamic movement. Initially, following serious clashes, the pro-Moscow government resigned and was replaced by a coalition of opposition forces, whose support came largely from the Central and Eastern regions. Backed by Russia and Uzbek forces however, the Leninobadi-Kolab faction with its control over the police and army now reorganized as militias launched a counter-offensive. Both sides resorted to assassinations, mass killings and by the end of the war, ethnic cleansing had been carried out in the Pamirs.
Caucasia became a centre of ethnic conflict. Today the region consists of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as eight Russian Republics, the best known of which is Chechnya. The region had a very complex ethnic make-up, because of its very diverse ethnic groups and numerous areas in which compact minority groups lived and also as a consequence of the arbitrary rule and repression of Stalinist times.
Against the background of the strengthening of nationalist moods in the former republics of the USSR, including in Armenia and Azerbaijan, a particularly sharp conflict developed over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno Karabakh is an Armenian populated enclave within Azerbaijan. As Soviet power was established in the Caucasus, the new governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1921 agreed that Nagorno-Karabakh would be part of Armenia. This decision however, was overruled by Stalin in 1923, who to appease Turkey passed the republic back to Azerbaijan. As perestroika opened up, in both Karabakh itself, and in Armenia mass demonstrations began with the demand to transfer Karabakh into the Armenian republic.
Many Armenians, afraid for their lives, fled Azerbaijan, and many Azeris left Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. But in February 1988, after several days of demonstrations, a pogrom took place in the Azeri city Sumgait. Eye-witnesses report that the pogrom was encouraged by the ruling Azeri CP, who were afraid of losing their power. State organs and the police took no action to stop the pogrom or end the rioting. Several dozen people were killed, hundreds were wounded. This was one of the first cases of mass violence based on ethno-national hatred during the years of perestroika. There were, even here, brilliant examples of solidarity actions by ordinary people, some Azeris hid their Armenian neighbors from the violence. The pogrom was only brought to an end after troops were sent in.
But the conflict wasn’t over. In September 1988, the Azeri population was driven out of Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenians from Sushi. In early January 1990, an anti-Armenian pogrom took place in the Azeri capital Baku, during which up to 300 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Only the declaration of a curfew and the use of troops brought the massacre to an end, although as a result of the storm of the city by troops a further 134 peaceful residents were killed and more than 700 hurt.
A new stage in the Armenian-Azeribaijan conflict opened after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The declaration by the Azerbaijan leadership that it was leaving the USSR brought an immediate reaction from Karabakh, which in September of that year declared the formation of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. In response to the appearance of Armenian troops, Azerbaijan began firing heavy artillery at Stepanakert, which continued for several months. As the USSR collapsed, Soviet troops were withdrawn from the region, which left large amounts of weapons and supplies, which were quickly seized by the warring sides and led to a drawn out large-scale war.
Only in May 1994 the sides signed the Bishkek protocol, which although it didn’t resolve the conflict, froze it. It is not known how many died during the conflict, but the figure is thought to run into thousands, including women and children. The Republic remains unrecognized but is a de-facto independent republic in the territory of Azerbaijan.
The Caucasian republic of Georgia quickly sunk into a state of armed conflict as perestroika developed. Strong nationalist tendencies had always existed here. In 1956 Khrushchev sent tanks to Tbilisi to suppress mass demonstrations, ironically against his “destalinization” — Stalin was an Ossetin, one of the minority nationalities within Georgia. As the processes that led to the collapse of the USSR sped up, Georgia too moved towards declaring its independence, first declaring Sovereignty and then full separation after the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow. In a multi-party election in May 1991, Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president. A former human-rights activist with a checkered past, he was a virulent anti-communist and, in power, his main policies were directed at restoring the Georgian nation — “Georgia for the Georgians” was one of his rallying cries. His rule was marked by totalitarian actions, and within two years an opposition, with the support of former Soviet Foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, crystalized and launched a coup d’état, thus starting a three year long civil war.
During this period, two autonomous regions within Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — spoke out against rule from Tbilisi. As early as March 1989, a march by Abkhazians calling for succession from Georgia was answered by a round-the-clock rally in opposition outside the Government House, which was broken up by Soviet troops. By June fighting had broken out in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, which was only stopped after the intervention of Soviet troops.
This did not end the conflict. Georgia’s drive to independence, which strengthened in 1990–91 was completed after the August coup. While the USSR still existed the two regions declared their intention to join the USSR as Union republics, that is to secede from the Georgian republic.
In August 1992 the first Abkhazian war broke out as Georgian National Guard troops entered the region. Although they had superior numbers, Abkhazia received support from volunteers from Chechnya and from Russia itself. Although Russia did not intervene directly, it did send food and medical supplies. At least 8,000 died and a quarter of a million Georgians were forced to flee Abkhazia. Although a peace deal was agreed in 1993, a second war broke out on 1998.
The situation in South Ossetia developed in much the same way. This time it was the decision of the Georgian Supreme Soviet to recognize just Georgian as the state language. In November of 1989, Gamsakhurdia organized a march of Tsinvali, the capital, where they met considerable opposition from the local population. Georgian volunteers laid siege to the town. South Ossetia, of course, was at the centre of the 5-day Russo-Georgian war in 2008 — the “first European war of the 21st century”!
Although in many cases, national tensions did not develop into armed confrontation, such as in the Baltic states and Crimea, it was military action that marked most of these events at the end of the 1980s and beginning of 1990s. The scars left by these conflicts are still felt today.
The position of nationalities in the Former USSR today
The national question remains as before, very important across the region. Frozen conflicts and unrecognized states such as Transdniestra, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are used by the different ruling elites to increase their own wealth and divide ordinary people against each other.
And more recently, Ukraine found itself at the centre of the conflict between imperialist powers, a low key war in East Ukraine still continues.
In Russia, the national question still remains very important. There are 160 nationalities — Tatars, Chuvash, Chechens, Ukrainians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and peoples of the Far North. Russia also borders fourteen other countries. But even though Russia is still a Federation, almost no part of the Federation enjoys those rights that it supposed to. The policies of the Putin regime are directed at strengthening the power of the centre, and expanding abroad in an imperialist way. Since 2000, a number of “autonomous regions” have lost their status. The legislation used in the republics has been brought into line with federal legislation. Since 2014, it has even become a criminal offense to make any calls that damage Russia’s territorial integrity. There are several people in prison on charges of advocating separatism.
Russia will not allow referendums on autonomy, which is particularly hypocritical given how Crimea was taken over. Now, with the new amendments to the Russian constitution due to be passed by a plebiscite in April, which defines a “belief in God” as a traditional value and to enshrine the Russian people (as opposed to the other nationalities living in Russia) as the basis of the state, once again the other nationalities have been placed in a second rate status.
Following two brutal Chechen wars and insurgency which in total lasted over 12 years and left up to 250,000 dead, Chechnya remains a state within a state. The Chechen President — Kadyrov — is close to Putin and runs the republic like his own personal fiefdom, with repression, and the torture and assassination of those who do not agree. Violence against women is considered normal, honor killings are ignored. And since 2017 there has been a witch-hunt against LGBT people.
Since 2017 the neighboring Republic, Ingushetia, one of the poorest regions in Russia with a 26% unemployment rate has been the scene a mass protests against an attempt by Chechnya to take over land, which has led to a major political crisis. It should not be forgotten that the Ingush people had bitter historical experience, following their deportation by Stalin to Central Asia, and their return in 1957, when they came into conflict with the Ossetians, who were then living in their former homes. But another, economic factor also fueled the conflict — officially unemployment in the republic is 26%, and even higher amongst youth, while it is also the Russian region with the lowest wages.
In the 3-million strong Dagestan in which 31 ethnic groups and 81 nationalities are to be found, the last few years have seen protests by long-distance lorry drivers, against the destruction of forests and against corruption and police harassment. After the Republican head was sacked, Moscow nominated a military officer unconnected with the region. Dagestan has joined republics such as Tatarstan, Karachay-Cherkessia and parts of Siberia resisting centralization.
More and more regional heads are being accused of corruption and being sacked by the Centre. In addition, the Putin regime is using budget allocations not to help the under-developed regions but as a means of forcing local elites to obey his rule.
Now too, attacks are being made on minority languages. The Russian parliament has passed a law, which means that Tatarstan, where most speak a Turkish based language, study of the Tatar language has been made voluntary and the budget cut for schools, museums and theaters that use the Tatar language. In effect all other languages in Russia have been declared of secondary importance.
It is important that socialists draw the lessons from these events, to develop a firm position in the interests of the working class. Our main task is to build the maximum unity of the working class of different nationalities in common struggle. Self-determination is a key right for all nations. Some try and restrict the importance by supporting just “cultural self-determination” — the right to use own language, develop cultural institutions and so on. As Marxists, of course, we support these rights not just in words, but we fight for the resources to realize them. But these rights are meaningless unless we fully support the political rights of nations, in Lenin’s words “to self-determination up to and including secession”.
When Lenin formulated this demand, he had in mind the need to establish national states with their own language, demarcated borders and ruling institutions as part of the process of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The demand gained even more importance in the epoch of imperialism, when the dominant powers restricted the development of new independent states. The actions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks of granting self-determination to a series of republics played a large role in winning support for the new government, Stalin’s refusal to accept this and his brutal treatment of the deported nations did much to discredit the Soviet system. It is not surprising that as discontent with the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy grew in the 1980’s, much of it was directed along national lines, with calls initially for greater autonomy and then for secession from the USSR.
As Marxists, we argued as national tensions exploded during the 1980s and early 1990s, that the republics making up the USSR should have the right to self-determination. By doing so, we continued not just the revolutionary traditions of the Bolshevik revolution and later, Trotsky and the Left opposition who argued in the late 1930s that Ukraine should be allowed to become a separate independent, socialist Ukraine. But as importantly, if we had not done this, we would have cut ourselves off from the mass of workers and youth in these countries who were fighting for independence.
That did not mean that we then ignored the rights of the national minorities within the new, independent countries. We argued against any attempt to restrict language rights, for example in the Baltic states where, after 1991, the Russian minority faced major discrimination. We argued that regions such as Transdniestra should have the right to autonomy within Moldova, or to be independent if it so wished.
We warned however, that as the process of capitalist restoration was gathering pace, unless the working class took control of the new independent countries, they would not gain the economic or political gains nor would they even gain the genuine independence they were striving for. Indeed, as the Soviet Union collapsed, fifteen new, capitalist countries emerged, nominally independent but finding themselves at the centre of the struggle between imperialist nations, including the new capitalist Russia for the right to control and exploit them. Several of the new states are authoritarian. Most are still suffering from high levels of poverty and social problems.
For smaller, poor nations or regions caught in the millstone between imperialist interests, genuine independence or even autonomy with capitalism is not possible. Even the powerful “independent” Russia, as a capitalist state is incapable of either providing a decent living standards for all its citizens or any real democratic rights, and it is turn restricts the rights of the nationalities within Russia. Nor by seeking support from one or other of the powers for protection is there a way out. Whatever path is chosen, capitalist business will exploit the natural resources and low wages to increase their profits, whilst the poor remain with low incomes. A first step to ensuring independence is to ensure that all the region’s natural resources are nationalized.
In supporting the right to self-determination, it does not mean that we automatically call for separation in every case and under all conditions. The main criteria in deciding is the mood of the working class itself. If, as socialists we speak in support of the separation of one nation from another, we do so not in order to further the interests of any national bourgeois group, but in order to build the solidarity and unity of workers of all nationalities.
The language question
This is even more so in many of the regions of the former USSR, where in a relatively small area there are several nationalities or ethnic groups living together. The recognition of equal rights for nationalities and languages is in the interests of proletarian solidarity.
It is necessary to remove the slightest lack of confidence between national groups, any alienation, suspicion or hostility. And full equal rights means the refusal of any privileges for any particular language. The attempts to introduce a single state language in the Baltic states, as well as Moldova, Ukraine and now Russia leads immediately to a growth in distrust.
On the contrary, we believe that all cultures and languages have the right to exist and should be included in the state financed education in all regions. After all, the possibility to study one’s own national language, to use it is a fundamental part of the right of nations to self-determination.
Right to self-determination
In calling for and defending the right of nations to self-determination, we reject any forcible links, Marxists oppose the granting of privileges of any one nation above another. Violent, feudal or military methods should be replaced by voluntary unions. In line with this, we fully support the right of nations to self-determination. Ordinary working people, 99% of the population can only gain from this.
Neither separation nor unification on their own can serve either as an aim or a solution to all problems. But self-determination allows for the national and cultural progress, is a means for ensuring genuine social liberation, the maximum material and creative development of the individual and of society as a whole. But this will not be possible, if the wealth of the new society remains in private hands, if capitalism continues to exploit the natural resources and workforce of any new country. It is therefore necessary to struggle for all natural, human and other resources to be placed at the service of the whole of society. That is there should be social ownership and a democratically planned economy, a genuinely free and equal, socialist society.
As the events around the struggle for self-determination that took place as the Soviet Union collapsed demonstrate, because the working class was not independently organized and leading the movement, the new nations or republics quickly became subject to a struggle between the interests of the different groups or clans within the national elite and bourgeoisie, made immensely worse by the conflict between different imperialist interests.
National wars, inter-ethnic conflicts are clear examples of how the capitalists use the principle of divide and rule. Ethnic division is the best method of driving a wedge between workers, forcing them to distrust and hate their neighbor when the real enemy of both is the capitalist class itself. To divide and poison feelings using nationalist moods allows the ruling elite to rule and exploit better the working class.
For this reason, Socialists are completely against discrimination against any ethnic group, and stand in defense of the rights of the oppressed workers and exploited peoples of all nationalities. In those regions or areas in which the ruling elite have managed to whip up a conflict between the nationalities, which, as can be seen by many historical examples, can lead to armed conflict and war, Socialists believe it is the responsibility of the working class and its organizations to stand up against such actions, organizing the defense of the minority populations and, if necessary the defense of workers of all nationalities from armed attack.
The only way to defend workers from attack in this way, and to achieve genuine autonomy or independence is to develop a strong, independent workers’ movement capable of struggle, and of overturning capitalism. The first step towards this is to reject any attempt to divide the working class along national or ethnic lines. This means the need to build workers organizations, that can resist nationalist and great power demagogy, and that are capable of defending in a united way the interests of all workers.
Organization however is not enough, it is also necessary to arm these organizations with a clear political program aimed at mobilizing the working class in defense of its daily interests, and to take over the banks, big industry and the natural resources so that they can be planned in a democratic way in the interests of all workers, to establish a genuine socialist society. Only then would it be possible to guarantee genuine independence of those nationalities that wish as part of an equal and voluntary federation or confederation of workers states.
The USSR was a federation of 15 “Union republics”, which are all now independent countries. In turn each of these often included “autonomous” regions.
Russia itself was and still is a Federation including 22 “republics” and other “autonomous” regions.
They were and are all, however under strict central control from Moscow.