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Putin Tries To Influence Former Soviet States


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

Writer Lawrence Sheets once described the Soviet Union as an ill-fitting, stained glass mosaic. That is certainly not the image any Westerners had as they watched the Soviet collapse in 1991.

LAWRENCE SHEETS: We saw the Soviet Union as a monolith, through a few symbols like Red Square or men in fur hats, empty store shelves - these sorts of things.

GREENE: Sheets is a familiar voice on MORNING EDITION. From 2001 to 2005, he was NPR's Moscow bureau chief. He just wrote a book called "Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20 Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse." We called Sheets for some insight at what appears to be a defining moment.

Vladimir Putin just won an election in Russia, returning him to the presidency. That despite anti government demonstrations in December, the largest protests in Russia since the Soviet Union fell.

Whatever the future holds in Russia, Sheets says it's important to remember that the former Soviet empire remains an ill-fitting mosaic. There are nations like Estonia, a full fledged democracy and NATO member. A world away, there are the central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which have authoritarian leaders. Russia, under Putin, will likely try to hold as much influence as it can over the former Soviet states. But Lawrence Sheets says that won't be easy.

SHEETS: The further you get from Moscow and the further away you get from the Russian federation in these former Soviet Republics, the less attention, probably, is paid to Mr. Putin. It's more of waiting and watching, and seeing how it's going to impact these various new countries, which are definitely going their own way, whether that be an authoritarian direction or a more democratic direction.

GREENE: The story, once the Soviet collapse happened, was that this place and these countries are just going to at some point take on Western-style democracy. It's just a matter of time. Now, looking back over the last 20 years, what is the story line, if you were to sum it up?

SHEETS: Well, I think it should be object lesson for all of us, about the nature of empires themselves. When the Soviet Union broke apart there was this euphoria in the West that, just as we viewed the Soviet Union as a monolith, we viewed what would become of the Soviet Union as this great thing where there's no question, oh, these countries are going to become Western democracies just like us, overnight. And, of course, nothing of the sort has happened.

I was in Moscow at the time, and there was this giddiness that you sensed in the Western media that it's all changing and they're going to be like us.

GREENE: Didn't you feel the same sense of giddiness from some Western journalists recently, when the protests were on the streets of Moscow? It felt like that was another moment when some Western observers were saying, ah, now the time has come for the big country from the former Soviet Union, Russia, to kind of, you know, to overthrow the authoritarian leader and become a real "democracy," quote, unquote.

SHEETS: Well, I think there's always this storyline which takes on a life of its own. And I think that the protests in Moscow, no question, would surprise the Kremlin. There was no question it surprised Vladimir Putin. We know that. But Moscow's a city of 15 million people, and Russia's a country of 140 million people. And perhaps sometimes what looks like an eminent revolution is much more complicated.

GREENE: Lawrence Sheets, your book takes us through a 20 year journey through the Soviet collapse. Look forward to the next 20 years, if you can. Where is the former Soviet Union and all these different countries, where are they going?

SHEETS: There's no question that this next six year period in Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is going to be one, probably, of great, I would say, unpredictability. There's no question Russia's a very changed place from what it was six to eight years ago. Just the fact that demonstrations - large demonstrations in Moscow, took place at all, were indicative of that.

People think about the breakup of the Soviet Union as having been 20 years ago, but in reality many of the conflicts which erupted as a result of the Soviet breakup are simply frozen and are low boil conflicts, low intensity conflicts, right now, which could easily re-erupt.

They haven't been solved. There haven't been formal peace agreements signed. People are still firing at each other. There are cease fires which hold up in a shaky fashion at best. But you cannot continue to have all of these frozen conflicts in places like Georgia or in places like Azerbaijan and Armenia and expect them to either blowup or be resolved at some point. It's either one or the other.

GREENE: Lawrence Sheets is the author of, "Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20 Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse."

Lawrence, thanks so much for joining us.

SHEETS: Thank you, David. It was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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