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  • Armed Forces and DemocracyThe Postcommunist Wars
  • Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. (bio)

We are living through what may be the twilight of an era, several centuries long, during which the use of force became ever more closely associated with the state. There are probably no symbols more strongly tied to the state than the flag and the military uniform, both of which date back only to the late seventeenth century. Everywhere that modern nation-states have arisen, one of their key tasks has been to restrict the scope of private fighting and to make themselves the sole legitimate wielders of force within their respective borders.

In much of the postcommunist world today, however, one encounters a reality that challenges all of our standard assumptions about the relations between armed forces and civilian governments. This essay will focus on the nature and role of armed forces in the new states and largely unrecognized ministates that have formed since 1991 on the territory of what used to be the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. I will note only in passing the case of Russia; for present purposes, it shows great continuity with the state identity of the old Soviet Union. I will have much to say, however, about the 11 breakaway ministates that have arisen (and sometimes vanished again) since the dissolution of the Yugoslav and Soviet federations: Srpska Krajina in Croatia; Republika Srpska and Croat-ruled Herzeg-Bosna in Bosnia; Kosovo (which has rival ethnic-Serb and ethnic-Albanian governments, only the former of which has an army) in Serbia; the Transdniester Republic in Moldova; Abkhazia, the Adzhar Republic, and South Ossetia in Georgia; Chechnya [End Page 18] in Russia; Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan; and Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan.

Widely differing processes have governed the evolution of armies in the various states that emerged after the collapse of communism. The old Yugoslav National Army (JNA), for example, rested on a delicate ethnic equilibrium maintained by quotas; it disintegrated along with the Yugoslav Federal Republic in the winter and spring of 1990–91. Thus all the new nations emerging from Yugoslavia had to construct new armies. The Soviet army, on the other hand, had an officer corps recruited primarily from the three Slavic nationalities (Great Russians, White Russians, and Ukrainians). Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all inherited organized units from the old army that had been stationed inside their respective borders at the time of independence. The other post-Soviet states had to devise new armies. Most of these non-Slavic nations had no indigenous officer cadres, since Soviet citizens who were not Slavs generally did not follow military careers. The professional identity of the Soviet officer corps, moreover, was strongly infused with Russian nationalism, and such non-Slavs as did make their way into its ranks tended to be assimilated to that ethos.

Of the inherited Belarusian and Ukrainian armies, little need be said; what is true of the Russian army broadly applies to them as well. Like their Russian counterpart, they are subject to considerable civilian control, though civilian supremacy was stronger still in Soviet days. They suffer even more from inadequate funds than the Russian army does, because of their countries’ slower-reforming economies. As in Russia, military life is riddled with corruption, most of it having to do with illegal trafficking in arms, supplies, and equipment from military stockpiles. Finally, both Ukraine and Belarus, like Russia, display a growing tendency to develop new military formations identified with particular officials or agencies of government.

Two differences between the Russian army and its “inherited” counterparts are worth mentioning. First, most of Ukraine’s and Belarus’s officers still identify with Russia—indeed, many are Great Russians remaining with former Soviet units that became Ukrainian or Belarusian by virtue of their geographical posting at the time of the USSR’s collapse. In the event of conflict with Russia, the loyalty of these officers would be in question. The second difference somewhat offsets the first: Belarus and Ukraine do not toil under Russia’s burden of wondering whether to play an imperial role in the “near abroad,” and have thus been spared the border adventures, politicization, and factionalization that plague the Russian army.


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