Soviet (dis)Union at 74

November 06, 1990

This is supposed to be a festive season in the Soviet Union, a time when military parades step briskly, fireworks flare and cities are draped in red to honor the 1917 Bolshevik takeover. But as the Communist experiment in utopia turns 74 tomorrow, there is little celebration. Instead, a worried nation wonders whether there will be enough food and heat for the approaching winter.

Five years after Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched his drive to breathe new life into the crumbling communist system, that system is dead.

The communist structures Mr. Gorbachev hoped to revitalize are gone. So is fear of communist authorities. Every day, self-asserting republics change the balance of power within and without the Kremlin. Declarations of independence -- initiated by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- now are the platform of nationalist movements in the Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia. The Soviet Union of Vladimir Lenin is disintegrating before our eyes. It is possible that tomorrow marks the last time the Soviet Union will go through the ritual of celebrating the 1917 communist takeover.

Russia is the key to what will happen in the future.

Russia is the most populous of Soviet republics. It is so big it spans 11 time zones. Under President Boris N. Yeltsin, the immensely popular Gorbachev rival, Russia has started a 500-day push toward a market economy that makes it the drummer of similar reforms in other republics. This puts it on a collision course with President Gorbachev and the central powers, which are hoping to initiate their own (and more timid) reforms later.

Without pompous declarations, Russia is practicing independence. Its decision to privatize quickly much of its economy amounts to a dismantling of the communist system and ideology.

Whether it succeeds or not, Mr. Yeltsin's economic revolution has begun the redefinition of the Soviet federation. Russia already has signed mutual agreements about trade and other exchanges with a number of republics. The Baltic nations have interpreted these documents as a recognition of their independence. Mr. Gorbachev seems disapproving but has been tardy in presenting concrete alternatives.

Except for the three Baltic states which demand outright independence, most Soviet republics seem willing to belong to some kind of a commonwealth. Their politicians wistfully talk about developing a trade block and political organization like the European Community to replace today's Soviet Union. Ironically, they are also preoccupied by the polemics of secession and trade barriers instead of common market and integration.

This is a confusing new ballgame. The Kremlin may be the referee, but Mr. Yeltsin is the quarterback. He is the hero. If he wants to, he could easily become the champion of a new union.

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