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Harriman Magazine
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2024 Issue | Features
Moving on from “Post-Soviet” States
by John Daniszewski

Why the Associated Press decided to avoid the shorthand “former Soviet republics”

By 1808, 32 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the identity of the United States was firmly established as a nation growing robustly and presenting the world with a new model of democratically elected government. Long gone was its identity as the “13 former British colonies.”

So why, 32 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are the 14 countries that emerged independent of Moscow in 1991 still commonly referred to as “former Soviet republics,” which is often the prime, or only, descriptor given them in news accounts? The description is highly reductive when one considers that they all possess separate languages, histories, and cultures that transcend the relatively brief historical period when they were part of the Soviet empire: seventy years or so for most, and even less for the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Each of these countries has been on its own separate path for the past three decades. Some have retained elements of Soviet governance and style or remained aligned with Russia through organizations like the Collective Treaty Security Organization. Others have firmly distanced themselves from Moscow, aspiring instead for European Union membership. Indeed, the Baltic countries have been part of both the EU and NATO for nearly two decades already, having embraced capitalism and democracy to an impressive degree.

That’s why The Associated Press decided in June 2023 to stop referring to these countries as “former Soviet republics.” The decision was taken on the advice of our journalists working in the region, and it has been generally well-received.

Here is the style guidance we issued, which is now part of the AP Stylebook, a widely-used guide to practice and language in American journalism.

Former Soviet republic(s) Avoid this shorthand for any of the group of 14 countries besides Russia that existed within the former Soviet Union, unless clearly relevant to the story. For example: Belarus’ security apparatus retains elements of its past as a Soviet republic, or, Kazakhstan seeks greater distance from Russia, despite the ex-Soviet republic’s former union with Moscow.

The style guidance continues:

The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and the countries that emerged have identities, histories and governing systems that transcend their 68 years (or less) within the Russia-dominated USSR. This applies to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Of course, there are many instances when it is appropriate to call attention to a country’s Soviet past, such as explaining the roots of events now unfolding in the Caucasus, where ethnic Armenians fled from Nagorno-Karabakh in 2023 after an Azerbaijani military conquest. The territorial dispute and the ethnic tensions in the enclave emerged in the final years of the Soviet Union, which earlier had kept nationalist rivalries in check or at least below the surface.

But in other cases, such as referring to Ukraine as a former Soviet republic, the characterization diminishes its importance and sovereign identity just as this country of 40 million—among the ten largest in Europe—fights for its existence from a Russian invasion.

With many people unable to identify, much less locate on a map some of the region’s smaller countries—such as Moldova, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan—we believe it is important to tell our readers more about them than that they are “former Soviet republics.” Given that they are now in their fourth decade of independence, anything less is disrespectful to these distinctive countries of Europe and Asia. Informing AP’s audience about their separate locations, languages, religions, economies, political systems, alliances, and cultures might be a good way to start.

John Daniszewski is AP Vice President and Editor at Large for Standards