In 1992 a term of ominous political importance  entered the English language and changed English grammar in the process. The term was “near abroad,” a translation of the Russian expression “blizhneye zarubezhye,” which referred to the ambiguous place of those nations that had been (unwillingly) a part of the USSR and were now independent nations, which many Russians and particularly Russia’s leadership had a hard time viewing as fully sovereign nations. Given Russia’s proclivity to forcefully intervene in its sovereign neighbors’ business whenever it suits them to do so–we have seen this in Georgia and Ukraine over the past few years and it has been threatened to other nations like the tiny and brave Baltic states–this is a term whose unease and dread is familiar even to many people in the West given the fact that those nations who are by misfortune close to Russia often wish they were far, far away. The term “near abroad,” though, changed English in a grammatical way even as it expressed the uneasy feeling of living next to a surly and wounded grizzly bear among the small people of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in that before this term was coined, the word abroad in English was strictly an adjective and not a noun like it was easily in German and Russian, among other Indo-European languages.
Without taking anything away from the horror of its context in the English language and among those who happen to dwell in that region, I wish to view the term in a different way. As someone who tends to see my dealings with other people in the form of diplomacy, I also am prone to seeing diplomatic terms like this one as being relevant when it comes to dealing with interpersonal concerns. We might therefore consider the term “near abroad” to relate to interpersonal relationships where one party is noticeably more powerful in some fashion and where the respect of the independence of the other cannot be taken for granted. Where a young adult stays at home with parents, this sort of situation can be easily understood, where someone might feel like Estonia or Ukraine in relationship to a restive Russia that is not sure that it recognizes the independence of someone still in the household and not far enough away where no sovereign control can be exercised. One could similarly see this relationship between a small company that serves as a supplier to a much larger company who must be dealt with very carefully because of their importance for the smaller firm’s viability. In both cases there is a technical independence between two parties but such a disparity in size and power that this independence may not always be recognized.
We might turn the picture around and look at the near abroad from the point of view of the larger state . Any nation or institution or person whose force of personality or whose control of resources gives them a strong degree of influence in the lives and behavior of others. Like a large body warping space and time around it and tending to pull others into orbit, power has an almost gravitational force on those who are nearby. Those who do not want to be pulled into orbit or have their paths strongly influenced feel the need to increase the distance from that distorting body. Yet one of the tangible benefits of acquiring power and resources for people, institutions, and governments is to increase the influence they have on others. The fact that this influence often is negatively viewed by others does not change the fact that it is often a difficulty in achieving one’s goals vis-a-vis other parties that encourages the acquisition of power so that this influence can be increased, which may only drive others further away because they do not wish to be subject to such influence. While this may work for businesses who can diversify their customer base and so avoid being too entangled by any individual company or market and from people who can simply move so far away from their families that those families have basically no influence on their daily lives whatsoever, countries are not generally so fortunate about being able to move away.
It is not as if countries have not tried this approach, though. Many Boer farmers made a great trek in the 1800’s to escape from the growing power of the British Empire in the Cape Colony and established two sovereign states of their own called the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, but only a few decades later Great Britain expanded again and ended up conquering these brave little racist states and joining them to a larger Union of South Africa with the Cape Colony and Natal. Those peoples who tried to escape from the spread of nations like the United States, Russia, Australia, Argentina, Canada, or Chile by moving west found themselves overwhelmed eventually by the spread of people and the power of government until there was nowhere else to go where one could flee overland. Those nations who had no where to run and who were already more or less trapped by their geography have even tried to turn to bigger nations or groups of nations (like the European Union) that were much less oppressive than the alternative. When belonging to a massive bureaucratic mess like the European Union is more appealing than being a little state at the mercy of a much larger neighbor, that is as much a sign of the extent Russia is feared and hated by its neighbors as one could see. Power must be brought to bear against those powers who are more threatening, and if power and resources cannot be acquired for oneself, they must be leveraged through one’s strength in diplomacy and one’s ability to gain protection from others. When one lives in the near abroad of someone else, one’s options are distinctly limited, and one has to make the best of what opportunities one can have for freedom of action.
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