Carnegie hosted Lawrence Sheets, South Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group, to discuss his new book Eight Pieces of Empire: A 10-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse. Currently based in Tbilisi, Sheets has traveled and reported extensively throughout post-Soviet Eurasia as a journalist for Reuters and National Public Radio. Sheets reflected on his experiences before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, giving special attention to conflicts in the North and South Caucasus. Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal moderated the discussion.  

The End of an Empire

  • Unexpected Collapse: Western experts did not anticipate the fall of the Soviet regime, Sheets said. Kremlinologists predicted that the system would remain intact either through Gorbachev’s reforms or as a result of government takeover by communist hardliners. Westerners viewed the Soviet Union as a “monolith” and a “predictable adversary” that would continue to exist indefinitely and thus, “underestimated the paroxysms going on at the fringes of the empire.”
  • Witness to War: In the years following the Soviet collapse, Sheets reported on conflicts in Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh, Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Afghanistan. These wars were noteworthy for the absence of front lines and regular armies, de Waal pointed out. Sheets agreed, adding that the conflicts are best understood as paroxysms that resulted from years of built-up tension. 
  • Political Models: In response to a question about the West’s failure to predict both the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more recently, the Arab Spring, Sheets argued that political models designed to predict the downfall of regimes are inherently flawed. In both cases, the West also lacked ground-based analysis that could have provided better insight. Although timing a regime’s demise is difficult, it is possible to gauge when a political system becomes unsustainable, Sheets concluded.
  • U.S. Response: Sheets said that the U.S. barely reacted to the Soviet collapse across Eurasia. U.S. diplomats had little knowledge of the region and were unsure how to engage the newly independent states. In the case of Georgia, Sheets argued that U.S. officials had little contact with local society. “We had relations with [President] Shevardnadze but not with Georgia,” he noted. 

Regional Conflicts

  • Inevitable Conflict: Sheets suggested that the conflicts of the early 1990s were more or less unavoidable given the escalating tensions between different communities. Despite cultural affinity between Georgians and Abkhaz, for example, tensions existed between these groups that eventually erupted as the Soviet Union fell apart, he noted. The conflicts in the Caucasus region are also situated along what he described as “geopolitical fault lines” that increased the likelihood of war, he argued.
  • Chechnya: Unlike other conflicts, however, war in Chechnya was entirely avoidable, Sheets argued. Few analysts predicted that such a terrible war would break out in Chechnya in 1994, he said. Even fewer expected Chechen fighters to resist in the face of a strong Russian military response. Today the future of this unstable region remains uncertain. Sheets noted that there is a growing movement in Russia to stop subsidizing the republics of the North Caucasus. Tellingly, a recent opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center shows that 51 percent of Russians no longer care if Chechnya remains part of Russia, he added.
  • Beslan Hostage Crisis (2004): Ossetians viewed the Chechens and Ingush as perpetrators of the killings at Beslan, where hundreds of civilians, mostly children, died during the course of a Russian assault to free hostages in a local school, Sheets asserted. Ordinary people saw it as a personal attack rather than the work of an international terrorist network. Even so, many Ossetians directed their anger at Moscow and blamed the government rather than the Ingush for the tragedy, he noted.  
  • Nationalism: Sheets argued that Soviet Russification policies fueled nationalist movements, which subsequently “hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.” Today, however, overt nationalism is less visible. In the case of Georgia, ethno-nationalism is no longer fashionable as it was during the 1990s. The younger generation is now questioning what happened in the turbulent early years of independence. In general, nationalism has become less important as people focus on addressing their basic needs, he concluded.