Russia Unraveling

November 12, 1991

Is Boris N. Yeltsin afflicted with Gorbachev's Disease? Is the Great Russian Republic about to unravel in an eerie replay of the Soviet Union's disintegration? Is the vast Eurasian land mass from the Polish border to the Pacific destined to be the scene of unending ethnic struggle and nationalist rivalry, with republics turning against the center and they in turn riven by divisions within their borders? It is a frightening prospect that gives special weight to NATO's plea for some assurance of Moscow's control over its huge nuclear arsenal.

The current drama in Chechen-Ingush, an autonomous republic in southern Russia, has suddenly revealed startling weakness in the position of Mr. Yeltsin. The popularly elected Russian president was a hero in thwarting the August military coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, his longtime political rival. But after first displaying his contempt for the old Soviet party apparatus and then acquiring authoritarian presidential powers, Mr. Yeltsin stumbled badly over the past five days in trying to thwart independence moves in Chechen-Ingush, a Muslim region captured long ago by the czars.

Not only did rebellious crowds defy troops dispatched by Mr. Yeltsin; the Russian parliament itself repudiated its supposedly all-powerful president by insisting overwhelmingly on political negotiations rather than armed suppression. Democratic Mr. Yeltsin is not; impulsive he is. It could be that warnings of terrorist attacks in Moscow subways and nuclear power plants around the capital from Gen. Djhokar Dudayev, who was sworn in Saturday as "president" of Chechen-Ingush, sobered Mr. Yeltsin's allies.

In any event, this rebuff to mighty Russia is loaded with ominous portents. The federation itself, almost double the size of the United States, comprises 16 "autonomous republics" (of which Chechen-Ingush is one), ten "autonomous areas" and five "autonomous regions." Its 150 million people, 82 percent ethnic Russians, speak 112 languages. Breakaway fever is running high from Tatarstan in the south with a long history of grievances against Muscovy to Yakutia in the west, a large Siberian territory rich in gold and diamonds it wants to claim as its own.

If the Russians are faced with geographic losses of their own provinces, they could take irredentist steps to protect their 27 million compatriots living in other "Soviet" republics. Mr. Yeltsin and some of his colleagues have been as threatening to their neighbors as they have been insistent on holding their own republic together.

Without czars or commissars to impose unity on the patchwork empire, the whole system is threatened with disintegration, violence, hunger and economic collapse. The danger of a fascist succession cannot be dismissed. Food aid from abroad will relieve humanitarian suffering but solve no political problems. If Mr. Yeltsin falters as Mr. Gorbachev did before him, what will come after?

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