Dangers of Soviet Disintegration

August 29, 1991

Unless a new union treaty can be drafted without delay, disintegration of today's Soviet Union may end up in bloodshed and chaos.

This is not a new prospect for the Muscovite empire. During thlast years of czarist rule, rapid industrialization and urbanization unleashed such uncontrollable forces that the poet Alexander Blok was moved to write: "We do not know yet precisely what events await us, but in our hearts the needle of the seismograph has already stirred."

In that pre-revolutionary period, "the most striking -- and most ominous -- impression is the prevalence and intensity of hatred: ideological, ethnic, social," Harvard Sovietologist Richard Pipes observes. "The radicals hated the 'bourgeoisie'. The peasants loathed those who had left the commune to set up private farms. Ukrainians hated Jews, Muslims hated Armenians, the Kazakh nomads hated and wanted to expel the Russians who had settled in their midst. . ."

After 1917, Bolsheviks suppressed these enmities. The civil war that followed the October Revolution was ideological, not nationalist or ethnic. And there's the present danger. National and ethnic passions first unleashed by Mikhail S. Gorbachev's retreat from authoritarian rule are flaring anew and threatening to explode in an orgy of separatism and destructive recrimination. Unless cooler heads prevail, possibilities for disaster are unlimited.

It is interesting to consider the position of Anatoly Sobchak, the non-communist mayor of Leningrad and one of the heroes of last week's aborted coup. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he declared himself to be the proponent of independence for republics which want it. "We all want this. But we must solidify the relations among us before this happens," he said. On one point he was insistent: "No nuclear weapons or armed forces including tanks, modern weapons, navy should be controlled by the republics."

Mr. Sobchak, a lawyer, made another point which meritattention. He said that if the rush to independence in various republics becomes uncontrollable, it might provoke a reaction from Russia, the largest and most populous state. "Such steps would give momentum to the idea of creating a Greater Russia and Russia would then try to seize more for itself," he said. The mayor specifically warned that to control nuclear weapons and retain order in the country, Russia might have no other option but to take over the Soviet armed forces from the weak central government.

This nightmare scenario seems to preassume a Russian leadeother than President Boris N. Yeltsin, who has acted responsibly -- despite independence euphoria -- to keep the center from disappearing altogether. He has agreed to give a Soviet central bank control over foreign exchange and precious metals. More important, he is spearheading efforts to create a commonwealth that might replace the Soviet Union and placate its peoples.

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