WASHINGTON -- For the first time, United Nations officials are asking privately: If the Soviet Union disintegrates, who would inherit its powerful seat in the U.N. Security Council?
"I don't think anybody knows the answer. This is a quite unprecedented situation," said Charles M. Lichenstein, a senior U.S. representative to the United Nations from 1981 to 1984.
Should many of the Soviet Union's 15 republics decide to secede from the union, as the three Baltic states are now doing with growing international support, he said, "then at some point you would have to ask, 'Is there still a Soviet Union?' "
Russia seems the most likely heir to the Soviet chair, said most of theU.N. diplomats and independent analysts pressed for an opinion yesterday. The vast federation is home to more than 150 million of the 280 million Soviet citizens, has 60 percent to 85 percent of the union's natural resources and has transcontinental dimensions far greater than any of its fellow republics, or any other country for that matter.
Russia already has asked to place its own representative within the Soviet delegation at the United Nations, the mission's senior press spokesman, Alexandr Denisov, disclosed yesterday.
He said the request was made "about a year ago" and had not been repeated since, so he did not regard it as indicating that Russia expected to take over the mission.
U.N. officials said yesterday that they did not anticipate any opposition to the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- becoming members over the next few months.
The status of the remaining 12 Soviet republics, however, was far less certain, they said.
Probably the most crucial question for other nations is who would control the Soviet nuclear arsenal, said Mr. Lichenstein. Most of the 27,000 strategic warheads lie in Russia, but the Ukraine and Kazakhstan also have a dangerously large supply. While the Ukraine has declared itself a nuclear-free zone, it has also staked a claim on the Soviet military forces on its territory.
U.N. diplomats said another important factor would be the way in which the Soviet Union came apart -- if there were disputes over secession, either among the republics or from other U.N. Security Council members.