Citizens of the former Soviet Union hardly had time to congratulate one another last week on their victory over the military-KGB-Communist Party putsch when a new nightmare peeked over the horizon.
In short order:
* Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin cautioned republics seeking independence that they would first have to settle border claims with the Russian Federation, the 800-pound gorilla of the crumbling Soviet empire.
* Nursultan Nazarbayev, the formidable reformist president of Kazakhstan, the second largest Soviet republic, replied publicly that if Russia claimed any Kazakh territory, it would be risking war.
* Oleg Rumyantsev, founder of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, until now considered a wunderkind of democratic reform, told the Christian Science Monitor: "If we are provoked toward civil war by irresponsible leaders of the republics, then we will respond from a position of force and self-confidence."
* Mr. Nazarbayev demanded that a Russian delegation visit Alma-Ata, the Kazakh capital, for emergency consultations to defuse the conflict. "Special danger lies in the fact that Kazakhstan is a nuclear republic," he said in a message to Mr. Yeltsin, just in case the Russian president was missing the point.
By week's end, the two republics had defused the crisis for the time being by agreeing to honor their existing borders. But there is a warning for the world in the exchange of unpleasantries: For a few days, the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations had been talking seriously about the possibility of going to war over territory.
The failure of the Soviet coup has swept aside the huge, rotten bureaucracy that had blocked and braked reform for years. It unquestionably has accelerated progress toward a market economy. It has exorcised the threat of revanche that had for so long made would-be entrepreneurs and private farmers hesitate to risk getting started. It has guaranteed the Baltic republics, among others, the independence they have sought so long.
But like other aspects of the New World Order, the final tumbling of Soviet totalitarianism is bringing some unpleasant surprises as well.
Die-hard Soviet Communists, if there still are any, and if they dared speak out loud, might be inclined to say they told us so. They always said Marxist internationalism was the only bulwark against the nasty chaos of ethnic rivalries.
"The successful solution of the national question in the U.S.S.R. is based on the fact that the Party has always conducted a determined struggle both with great-power chauvinism and with local nationalism, whatever forms these might take," the party's theoretical journal, Kommunist, explained back in 1958.
Now, at last, the Party's over. In between thinking up a new name for their profession, more than a few Sovietologists and Kremlinogists are scanning the ruins of communism for -- well, "great-power chauvinism and local nationalism."
Will Russia trade in its new-found democratic clothing for the musty uniform of czarist-style imperialism? Some non-Russians are worried about the way Mr. Yeltsin is throwing Russia's weight around. Will fanatical devotion to the rediscovered nation -- not just the ones in the news now, but Karakalpak or Bashkiria or Chuvashia or Ingushia or Udmurtia or any of another hundred tongue-twisters -- push aside common sense about trade and economic rebuilding? Much evidence says yes.
A long list of potential ethnic and border conflicts is waiting in the wings, and resolving them peacefully will test the statesmanship of new leaders such as Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Nazarbayev and the Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, whose three republics have the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear weapons.
The natural tensions caused by ethnic tangles and murky border histories are exacerbated by economic misery, and this year's harvest seems in particular danger. Inter-republican conflict, in turn, will tempt leaders to raise high the trade barriers and curb or ban exports. But in the super-centralized economy that is a legacy of Stalinism, a single factory often is the exclusive source of a product for the entire sprawling union, and a little anarchy goes a long way in crippling production.
Take, as one example of the potential for trouble, the Kazakhstan question. There are nearly as many ethnic Russians as ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, a huge, varied land of forest, steppe and desert stretching to the south of Russia between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. Many of the Russians live in the north of the republic, along the Russian border.
A year ago, publishing in the Soviet press his concept of a reorganized Russia, the exiled Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn blithely proposed lopping off the northern part of .. Kazakhstan and tacking it onto Russia. The Kazakh response was fierce.