Many United States observers of human rights violations in the Soviet Union depict Moscow as the "big bully" that uses tanks and guns to suppress small, independence-minded republics. But the record shows that Mikhail Gorbachev's central government has exercised relative restraint compared to the republics themselves.
By ignoring the republics' abuses of the human rights of their minorities or neighbors, American political leaders apply a double standard and neglect an opportunity to help prevent further violence in the U.S.S.R.
In Georgia, Moldova (formally Moldavia), Azerbaijan and the Baltics, noncommunist governments have harassed, persecuted and killed members of minority nationalities who disagree with dominant independence movements.
The Baltic states have limited the rights of the 3 million Russians living on their territory. Further, they are considering stringent requirements (including residency before 1940 and language mastery) that would virtually prohibit Russians from gaining citizenship.
Lithuanians assert the invalidity of the 1940 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which led to their absorption by Moscow. But through this pact they also gained territory from Poland, including Vilnius, their capital. Vilnius still has a large Polish population, whose minority rights the Lithuanian government negates.
In Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's government has cut off heat and electricity to South Ossetia, whose non-Georgian population opposes secession. Ossetians, Russians and Armenians (including women, children, the elderly and sick in hospitals) are suffering cold, hunger and death from this blockade.
In Moldova, the Turkic Gagauz people and the Russian/Ukrainian population of the Dnestr region have opposed secession and held territorial elections for self-determination. In response, the Moldovan government (dominated by the nationalistic People's Front) has authorized the formation of volunteer detachments to control these areas. Subsequent clashes have produced deaths all sides.
In Azerbaijan, the dominant Azeris have inflicted pogroms on Armenians and cut off gas that travels through their territory to Armenia. In turn, Armenians have forced Azeris to flee Armenia.
The rhetoric of some republican leaders reveals their callous indifference to the rights of minorities. Georgian President Gamsakhurdia, sometimes called the "Georgian Mussolini," has blamed communists for the quarrel between Tbilisi and South Ossetia and urged that communists be "chopped up, . . . burned out with a red-hot iron of the Georgian nation."
Under President Gorbachev, Moscow's anti-independence crackdowns have killed fewer people than inter-ethnic violence in and between republics.
The Soviet crackdown in Georgia in 1989 caused 20 deaths, and Moscow's recent use of force in the Baltics also resulted in 20 dead.
But hundreds of Armenians have died in Azeri pogroms, and thousands more have died in the Azeri siege of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 50 people have died and hundreds more wounded in Georgia's crackdown on South Ossetia. Altogether, ethnic violence in the U.S.S.R. has produced 700,000 internal refugees.
We should not ignore Moscow's actions, but we ought to condemn human rights violations regardless of who the perpetrators are. If the republics fail to protect minority rights in a divided U.S.S.R., the lives of 60-70 million citizens who are minorities will be at risk.
What can the United States do?
* First, we must set a standard of behavior for all Soviet actors who wish to receive Western aid or investments -- a standard that included guarantees of minorities' physical safety, human rights and the right to self-determination.
* Second, we can offer a platform in the West for Soviet advocates of human rights in the republics.
* Third, the U.S. government should give financial and political support to Soviet and Western specialists involved in ethnic conflict-resolution projects in the U.S.S.R..
* Fourth, we should respond to calls from minorities like the Gagauz to create U.N. fact-finding missions to verify human rights abuses.
* Finally, we should publicize widely all known human rights infringements by Moscow, by the republics and by minorities.
Unchecked human rights violations could lead to a civil war that would kill reform in the U.S.S.R. and create millions of refugees.
If we continue to neglect human rights violations in the republics, we also risk renewing the cold war; already, some Moscow officials feel that the U.S. human rights rhetoric is one-sided and hypocritical.
It is time we ended our silence. We have condemned human rights abuses by Moscow's "big dictators" in the past; let us not hesitate now to condemn similar actions by "small dictators" in the republics.
Astrid Tuminez is research associate of the Harvard Project on Strengthening Democratic Institutions. She wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.