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Political Experiments, Divisive Narratives: How Brexit Jolted Memories of Soviet Collapse

13/07/2016 12:04 | Updated 13 July 2016

The morning after the UK referendum, on 24 June, I woke up feeling a strong sense of déjà-vu: that I had seen and gone through it all before, around the time of the collapse of the USSR back in 1991.

For over 20 years now it has been fashionable to proclaim how terrible life was under the Soviet Union - and the further away it gets, the greater the number of myths supporting that narrative. Yet no situation can be completely bad, or good, for that matter.

I grew up in our expansive family home in an idyllic, popular spa town, at the foothills of the Caucasus - what was then the South Ossetian Autonomous Region, within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the 15 republics comprising the USSR.

Everyone was guaranteed social security. At 14, when I was admitted to hospital with advanced tonsillitis, I was put in a separate ward and fed four hot meals a day. The ward was cleaned twice daily and a formidable looking matron would turn up unannounced to carry out spot inspections, running cotton wool along the lino and examining it by the window through her thick glasses.

We could leave our doors either unlocked or with the key under the mat, in complete security. In the twenty-five years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to official statistics, there had been no murders committed in South Ossetia, with its 97,000 multi-ethnic population and large numbers of tourists.

Education was of high quality and free of charge. We were multi-lingual in Ossetian, Russian and Georgian, but also knew bits of Hebrew picked up from our neighbours' children, and Armenian, Turkish and Greek expressions and songs. There was a strong sense of community, everyone knew everyone else. As children, we always looked forward to our neighbours' national holidays and celebrated them together. We had the highest percentage of mixed marriages in the USSR.

I was sixteen when I first learnt the meaning of 'xenophobia' and 'ethnic discrimination'. Like most girls of my age I had a number of young suitors, none of whom I entertained. One was a likeable, plump lad who used to drive his father's flashy Volga. One day his mother let it be known using the local grapevine - as effective as today's Facebook - that the family did not approve of their only son having anything to do with me. She softened her censure by adding that I was a "nice girl but an Ossetian, nevertheless".

The boy was Georgian. We had never previously thought of each other in terms of our ethnic origin. Being a bit of a gourmet, I had only ever characterised my friends according to their national cuisines. In fact, there was a sort of unspoken collective taboo in Ossetian society on any discussion of ethnicity. Maybe it was something to do with the trauma of historical narratives that the Nazis had spared the Ossetians as 'representatives of the true Aryan race', or the fact that our society was sufficiently mature and stable not to brandish its past.

I have to admit, I can still remember my indignation, anger and pain at that public declaration of my unsuitability. The boy was not even my type, and I found his mother's words downright unfair. I wanted to deliver a stinging riposte in return, but for some reason, I could not bring myself to humiliate those who had insulted me, my family and my nation. I realised that if I was to, my relations with my Georgian - and other non-Ossetian friends - would never be the same again and I would isolate myself from them. On reflection, I realised that secretly held, or even open expressions of belonging to an exclusive ethnic, class or other identity group is a time bomb waiting to go off - one which went off many years later in front of my eyes during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I will not go into the root causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union, but the ease with which it happened had much to do with people's fears. The fear of change at the time of perestroika had provoked a retreat from the present into the past, each into their history. That, in turn, had led to an explosion of racism whose potential had been accumulating over the decades during which Moscow ignored multi-national identities and tried to impose instead a common 'Soviet' identity, rooted in the dominant Russian culture.

It all started so simply and did not appear serious, a bit ridiculous even. All sorts of political and public figures emerged, their slogans founded on the basic assumption of 'we are superior to them', which was then automatically interpreted by the few nationalistically minded sectors of society as 'us against them'. Yet people overall did not pay that much attention. They were used to stability and complacent that it would not be undermined by the destructive blather of the new right.

I am far from wanting to draw parallels with the UK, but listening to the British TV, I had the surreal sense that the then leaders of the former Soviet nationalist movements had been listening in back then - so similar were their phrases, such as 'finally regaining our independence and living the way we want', 'getting rid of those who we have to maintain', 'managing our own economic resources and natural wealth, and 'building our own relations with who we want'.

Just like some Brexiteers, their USSR predecessors had also talked about things being difficult economically to begin with, but that it would stabilise later on and everyone would enjoy a bright and happy future, liberated from each other.

However, while in the UK, one also hears strong voices of reason, calls to and actions for tolerance, this was absent from the public discourse in the final days of the USSR. There, the lack of freedom of speech and thus the culture of holding what should be political and public debates within only narrow circles of friends and relatives, played its fateful part.

All of us in Georgia loved to moan about the Soviet Union in the same way they love to attack the European Union over here. We were annoyed by the high degree of bureaucracy, and hated Moscow's attempt to govern all of us in a centralised fashion, to develop a single set of standards for us all, despite our differences. Yet no one among my close circle ever wanted to build a political or public career. We invested in our own individual growth and education with the result that the country lacked a healthy critical mass of people, capable of bringing about positive change, opposing the radicalisation of public discourse and forestalling many catastrophic consequences.

Centrifugal tendencies emerged first in the Soviet republics with the strongest economies. Georgia, possibly the richest, was a case in point and successfully extricated itself from the USSR. Yet it also had two autonomous regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which did not want to secede from the USSR and did not want to remain part of Georgia, whose political project had begun with the slogan 'Georgia for Georgians.'

Very soon, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia officially declared their desire to secede from Georgia and then the conflicts could no longer be contained as they descended into armed violence, the burning down of hundreds of villages and large-scale displacement on people ethnic grounds.

I shall not go into the dire consequences this had for the economy, education system, science, social security, etc. The most tragic and irrevocable were the deaths, ruined lives, lost generations who had been stripped of what we had possessed, nations who lost confidence in each other and who now prefer to live in isolation from each other to economic and other types of cooperation.

Ever since, I have heard time again people contemplate the missed opportunities, how everything could have been so different, how prosperous we could have been by now - that even the break up of the USSR could have been managed differently, preserving its economic, scientific and other potential, had xenophobia not destroyed the best thing the USSR possessed - its human potential.

Another part of my déjà-vu is this. There is a widely held view in post-Soviet countries that the collapse of the USSR had all been part of a plan hatched by the West and the USA in particular. This mind set, where one positions oneself as a victim, justifies passivity and the sense that it is out of our hands, everything has already been decided at the highest level. It reduces our individual agency and that of society as a whole, and conversely, attributes magical powers to those who have done this to us. Strangely enough, we have heard opinions expressed here, too, that both Europe and the UK are acting according to Putin's plan.

Britain's civic and government institutions are strong. Many of them reacted in a robust way both to the divisive 'them and us' propaganda before the referendum and the outbreak of xenophobic abuse afterwards. In the first week after Brexit, in speaking to complete strangers on three separate occasions, on hearing my accent they felt the need to apologise to me personally for what was going on. At the same time, they blamed the politicians for stirring things up - something you hear from people in all conflict and post-conflict zones.

As long as our societies and our countries are comprised of human beings, no corner of the world is totally immune from the emergence of destructive nationalist tendencies that can undermine everything that has been built over centuries. In every conflict region I have worked in or visited, people say the same: 'we never thought this could happen to us'.

Irresponsible experiments by political forces or movements who build their agenda by pitting one group against another, scapegoating and xenophobia is playing with fire, even in the healthiest and most stable societies. It is just a matter of time before such fire can get out of control.

There are simple fire prevention rules and regulations, known to everyone. They are based on common human values which propose that one should behave towards others the same way in which you would like them to behave towards you. The only difficulty is that such fire safety rules have to be observed by each and every one of us, on a day-to-day basis.


In the Caucasus, International Alert helps communities to build trust and work together across conflict divides. Read more about this work here.

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