February 21, 2016:
While the current Russian government appears to be maintaining its popularity by calling for the rebuilding of the pre-1991 Russian Empire, opinion surveys and migration patterns indicate a mixed attitude towards the old Russian Empire. The big problem is that half the people in the old empire were not Slavs although ethnic Russians were the majority among the half that was Slavic. The problem is that despite centuries of living in the same country (czarist Russia or the Soviet Union) all these different ethnic groups never developed much affection or tolerance for each other. Most ethnic Russians living in non-Slav parts of the Empire (especially Central Asia and the Caucasus) have returned to Russia since 1991. Most of those who stayed in non-Russian areas did so for economic reasons. That was also why non-Russians stayed in Russia, because what is now Russia is where the most economic opportunities always were. That wealthier and better educated population was a major reason Russia conquered all those other countries. But in the end (1991) the conquered, as is usually the case, never got used to the conquest and do not want the conquerors back.
There’s also the racism factor. For example about 40 percent of ethnic Russians thought other Slavs (like Ukrainians or Byelorussians) were capable of becoming “Russians” if they lived in Russia for a few years and switched their loyalty to Russia. But less than ten percent thought peoples from the Caucasus or Central Asia were capable of that. This xenophobia (fear of outsiders) is nothing new for Russia. For 70 years the communists sought to eliminate this trait but only managed to suppress it and delude themselves into thinking it was gone. This is a common pattern in communist countries and throughout East Europe. Xenophobia returned in the 1990s because of the collapse of the communist governments in 1989. It was worst in the Balkans, where civil war erupted as the communist police state collapsed and optimists hoped for a democratic Yugoslavia. While that that had long been a cherished goal in the region, it was not to be. Several years of vicious fighting between Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Albanians followed and was not halted until 1999. The Caucasus also erupted and unlike Yugoslavia, a NATO peacekeeping force was not available to fix things there. In the Caucasus the usual Russian application of carrot (bribes) and stick (violent suppression) did not work either. Eventually (1999) Russia had to reinvade parts of the Caucasus (especially Chechnya) to restore order.
Meanwhile, there has been a major ethnic shift in the Caucasus. Russians, and other people not native to the Caucasus, are still being driven out of the region by terrorism, corruption, and a bad attitude towards outsiders. It’s been worst in Chechnya, where Russians comprised 25 percent of the population in 1989, but only 2 percent today. The decline has not been as great in the rest of the Caucasus but it has been massive, with more than half the Russians who were living in the Caucasus having left by 2011. Actually, this trend began in the 1950s, right after tyrant Josef Stalin died in 1953 and Russia began to trim the power of the secret police. The departure of ethnic Russians from the Caucasus simply accelerated after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In Central Asia about half the nearly ten million ethnic Russians living there in 1991 have left.
The recent Russian operation to take the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine had a bracing effect on the other countries that, until 1991, were part of the ancient Russian Empire. The Crimean operation was the second such land grab Russia had undertaken since 2008. The first was against tiny Georgia. Many of these former Russian subjects feel that the Russians are trying to get their empire back. Ask many Russians that question and most agree that it would be a nice thing. Some Russians are more outspoken and bluntly call for the empire to be reassembled no matter what.
In reaction to this the forlorn fourteen nations that were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, as well as many East European states that were subject to Russian control from the end of World War II to 1989 have become very nervous. Poland is particularly agitated because large parts of Poland were part of the Russian Empire for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Same deal with Finland, which broke away after World War I and had to fight off a Russian invasion in 1940 and many threats since then to stay independent. That makes the forlorn fourteen the scared sixteen. All of these nations have noted what happened to Georgia and Ukraine with great trepidation and are responding in expected, and unexpected ways.
The fourteen former Russian imperial possessions that regained their independence are the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the five “stans” of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Poland, the Baltic States and Finland escaped from the empire after World War I but only Finland managed to stay free through World War II. The Baltic States were retaken during World War II and Poland remained nominally independent but was occupied by Russian troops (and took orders from Russia) until 1989.
Poland and the Baltic States managed to join NATO after the Cold War ended and are hoping that the mutual defense terms of the NATO alliance will dissuade Russia. Nevertheless all four, plus Finland, have increased their military readiness this year and are seeking assurances from the West that they will have help against Russia. Many Finns have called for Finland to join NATO, but a large minority has opposed this because of the fear it would anger the Russians. There was a similar division in Ukraine but now more Finns are thinking that NATO membership is preferable to trusting Russia to always behave. Even Sweden, never part of the Russian empire and successfully neutral since the early 19th century is thinking about joining NATO for protection from an increasingly aggressive Russia.
The stans of Central Asia have another option; China. The stans have been very receptive to Chinese diplomatic and economic cooperation. This bothers Russia, but not to the extent that threats are being made, as was the case with the former imperial provinces to the west. The stans also have a problem with never having been democracies. When the Russians conquered them in the 19th century, the local governments were monarchies or tribes. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former Soviet officials held elections and manipulated the vote to get themselves elected "president for life." But many people in the Stans want clean government and democracy, as well as continued independence from Russia. China is no help with that because the Chinese prefer dictators.
In the Caucasus Georgia still seeks closer ties with the West. Armenia, because of disputes with Azerbaijan and long-term fear of Turkey remains a close ally of Russia. Azerbaijan maintains good relations with Russia mainly because Iran claims Azerbaijan as a lost province (stolen by Russia in the 19th century).
Russia is quite open about wanting to rebuild the old Tsarist Empire that the communists managed to lose in 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart and half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries (or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered). Russia is proposing things like customs unions, military cooperation and rebuilding the old Soviet air defense system that used to defend everyone in the empire. There’s been some progress, but most of the 14 nations want nothing to do with Russia.
Meanwhile Russia has to face that fact that when the Soviet Union broke up half the population enthusiastically went to the 14 new countries and most of those people were quite pleased with the demise of the Soviet Union. Thus if you asked all citizens of the former Soviet Union what they thought of the breakup you would find about 70 percent with no regrets. That’s because the Soviet Union was basically the Russian Empire cobbled together by the old czarist monarchy over more than two centuries of conquest and expansion. Thus in the Soviet Union more than half the population felt like conquered people, not part of any union. The Soviet Union dissolved quickly in 1990-91 because over half the population really wanted it to happen and had wanted it for a long time. Moreover many ethnic Russians were tired of supporting a lot of the less affluent conquered people and were fed up with the economic failures of communism. The former Soviet Union citizens who regret the breakup tend to be older people who were disillusioned at how corruption and bad leadership made post-Soviet life less wonderful than was expected. The younger people are more realistic, never having lived as adults in the Soviet Union and intimately familiar with the fact that freedom isn’t free and democracy is difficult. For younger Russians there are more economic opportunities than under communism. While Russia lost half its population when the Soviet Union broke up, it hung on to most of the valuable natural resources (like oil and natural gas). While the post-Soviet government was initially reluctant to increase state supplied pensions (which were low during the Soviet period because there was little to spend it on and the state supplied housing and some health care), the pensions did eventually go up. But not as much as the economy grew and the working Russians were obviously doing better than the pensioners who had grown up under communism. In Soviet times that meant there was little economic opportunity and most everyone was equally poor. The old-timers never got used to the post 1991 changes and most would prefer the communists to come back. That won’t happen and as the generations that grew up under communism die off so will any desire to return to the bad (but familiar) old days. Nevertheless enough Russians favor rebuilding the empire to make the idea a popular talking point among major politicians and that may continue for decades.