Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Questions on Colonialism

There is a an old debate as to whether the USSR was an empire and ruled Central Asia and other areas outside the ethnic Russian core as colonies. One of the main arguments made against the USSR being a colonial empire was that the less developed areas of the USSR such as Central Asia received far more in economic terms than they lost. This argument seems strange to me. It seems to argue that colonialism is primarily an economic rather than a political relationship. I am not sure if this is the case. If a larger power bribes the population of a smaller territory with an increased standard of living in exchange for giving up its political independence what is it called? The USSR was not unique in this policy, so I am not so sure it is not a type of colonial rule based upon carrots rather sticks.

First, while Central Asia and the Caucasus had a far higher material standard of living as a result of being part of the USSR than they would have otherwise this was not true of all areas under Soviet rule. The Baltic States, particularly Estonia and Latvia had a far lower material standard of living as a result of being occupied by the USSR than they would have had otherwise. Were Latvia and Estonia colonies as a result of this economic relationship in addition to being illegally occupied? While the Central Asian republics were not colonies as well as being legally part of the USSR? Must the colonized territory be a net loser and the colonial power a net beneficiary economically for a colonial relationship to exist?

Second, the Soviet definition of national self determination seems odd here. For the most part Central Asians were satisfied with the political and economic situation under Soviet rule. There was very little dissent among these nationalities. National dissent in the USSR was largely limited to Germans, Jews, Crimean Tatars, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Georgians and Armenians. But, surely lack of opposition and satisfaction due to receiving a high standard of living as a result of the transfer of wealth from other regions of the USSR is not the same as popular participation. Central Asians, particularly the Communist Party elite who benefited most from being part of the USSR viewed their political participation and economic benefits from the system as satisfactory, but they did not have any real control over most important issues of policy making. Did this satisfaction with the status-quo in fact translate into national self-determination? It seems that the Soviet policy towards Central Asia had a lot in common with US policy towards Puerto Rico and other territories. The economic benefits of remaining under the control of a larger power far outweigh the benefits of political independence.  Is Puerto Rico not a colony because most of the population consents to being a Commonwealth of the US?

I think part of the problem is the negative connotations of the word colonialism. But, not all colonial relationships were alike. Traditionally colonialism has involved an economic transfer from the dominated to the dominant power and popular opposition by the colonized people. However, are these the defining definitions of colonial rule? It seems to me that political rule not just the direction of economic transfer should be a consideration in whether a colonial relationship exists. This would mean, however,admitting to the existence of relatively benign forms of colonial rule such as the US currently exercises over places like Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Somoa.

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