Karl Marx got a couple of things right. He warned early Communists against taking power in Russia because the country was too backward for successful utopian experimentation. He also preached that political and social institutions derive their forms from the underlying economic circumstances in which they exist. Today's Soviet Union illustrates how painful it is when both the economic conditions and institutions are changing.
In much Western analysis, recent tensions between the Kremlin and the 15 Soviet republics have been interpreted almost exclusively on ethnic grounds. Yes, some of that tension is genuinely ethnic. Much of it, though, is simple squabbling over property that has belonged either to the Communist Party or the Soviet state. As power shifts from "the center" to the republics and non-Communist institutions, a scramble is going on for property that is about to be redistributed. This, in turn, fuels endless conflicts and even violence.
Lithuania and Latvia are cases in point. The Kremlin scorned -- but gingerly condoned -- those Baltic republics' declarations of independence until they began confiscating Communist Party property. When that happened, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev sent troops to occupy and defend party buildings and printing plants, triggering violent confrontations.