KISHINEV, Moldova, U.S.S.R. -- Dwarfed by a statue of the 16th-century Moldovan prince Stefan the Great, a diminutive schoolteacher named Anna Kochmaryuk called her people to the defense of the homeland.
"Remember, Moldovans! When Stefan the Great came back after losing a battle, his mother told him: 'Don't come home until you win,' " Ms. Kochmaryuk cried into a yellow megaphone to the crowds on Kishinev's central square. "And he gathered his forces and went back to battle and defeated the Turks!"
Her message was not lost on the hundreds of young men boarding city buses to travel to the southern regions of Moldova. Their job: to stop the secession of the Gagauz Republic, a breakaway effort by members of the Gagauz ethnic minority.
If called on by Moldovan nationalist leaders, the volunteers said, they will be ready to take their battle of words -- and maybe weapons -- to the east. There, ethnic Russian separatists have declared another attempt at secession from Moldova -- the so-called Dniestr Republic, on the left bank of the Dniestr River.
Both the Russians and the Gagauz, Christians who speak a variant of Turkish, say the proclamation of their tiny republics was a desperate measure forced on them by a rising tide of Moldovan nationalism.
For both ethnic minorities, secession from Moldova is motivated ultimately by the fear that Moldova will secede from the Soviet Union and unite with neighboring Romania, whose inhabitants are ethnically and linguistically almost indistinguishable from Moldovans.
Over the past year, Moldova has dropped the Russianized name "Moldavia," adopted the Romanian tricolor as its flag and replaced the Russian-style Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin alphabet used in Romania. Most inflammatory has been a stiff state-language law that requires all bosses of enterprises to learn Moldovan, whether or not their workers are Moldovan.
The current Moldovan drama of secession within secession bolsters the theory that the end of the Soviet empire will produce not an eastern variant of the European Community, albeit impoverished, but a kind of sprawling, nuclear-armed Lebanon.
Here, in this sunny, vineyard-covered land 800 miles southeast of Moscow, is a laboratory experiment in the compatibility of freedom, nationalism and peace in the world after Leninism.
Its results to date, viewed in a three-day trip around Moldova late last week, are not encouraging. If two years ago the word on people's lips here was "perestroika," the phrase bandied about today is "civil war."
Imagine an inland Maryland: Moldova's area is slightly larger than Maryland's, its population of 4.3 million almost identical in size, its climate similar.
Imagine hearing one morning that everything west of Hancock has just declared itself the sovereign state of Western Maryland, and everything beyond the Bay Bridge just became the Republic of the Eastern Shore.
Imagine angry crowds massing at the Inner Harbor, listening to speaker after speaker denounce the separatists and declare Maryland indivisible. Imagine them boarding buses, armed with helmets, chains and clubs and heading for Cumberland or Salisbury.
And picture a 35-year-old teacher, fresh from her elementary-school classes, shouting encouragement into a megaphone.
"The time has gone for 'My address is the Soviet Union,' " Ms. Kochmaryuk told a reporter, mocking an old platitude of Leninist internationalism. "We're sick of slogans about friendship and peace. Now, everyone needs his own piece of land."
As a diverse crowd formed instantly around a foreign journalist, Moldovans on the square passionately explained their fears. Their land is too small to survive slicing up, they said. To let the two new republics stand would be to commit suicide as a republic.
"If the Gagauz don't like it here, if they don't want to learn our language, let them leave our land," said Valery Hincu, a %o637-year-old bus driver. "Let them go home to Turkey."
As a chilly dusk fell in Komrat, the dilapidated, 35,000-strong capital" of the Gagauz Republic, Leonid Dobrov addressed a rally that had drawn a sizable fraction of the population, from militant youths to nervous grandmothers.
A young wood sculptor who was imprisoned for seeking Gagauz-language newspapers and schools in the days of Communist orthodoxy, he had just been released after being jailed for a month by the Moldovan authorities while they looked for something to charge him with.
"They accuse us of 'thirsting for power,' " Mr. Dobrov declared to the packed square in front of the dilapidated town hotel. "Well, we are thirsting for power! Others have ruled us for too long!"
The blue onion domes of the Orthodox Christian church behind Mr. Dobrov was a reminder of the fallacy of the "home-to-Turkey" argument heard in Kishinev. Like many statements in Moldova these days, it is thick on emotion and thin on history.