Despair and Hope in Moscow

November 27, 1991

No end seems in sight to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The refusal this week of seven republics to form a new rump union under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's leadership is the kind of bad news that will benefit no one as a bitter winter sets in. It is impossible to think of any meaningful economic or societal overhaul in the former communist empire without determined cooperative efforts in the fields of foreign policy, nuclear armaments and finances.

The union treaty was intended to replace the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with a new Union of Sovereign States. A centralized Stalinist state would have been transformed into a loose confederation. But even this arrangement proved palatable to only seven of the 12 remaining Soviet republics -- Russia, Byelarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kirgizia and Tadzhikistan. Ukraine boycotted the talks, along with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldava.

Although the rejected union treaty will now be sent to the parliaments of various republics for further consideration, it is dead. Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan, two neighbors embittered by centuries of historical and religious hostility, are edging toward open warfare. Yesterday, their leaders agreed to go to Moscow for last-ditch negotiations, thereby confirming, however unintentionally, the importance of coordinated efforts in trying to resolve problems within the old Soviet empire.

Frustrated by the protracted talks about cooperation that never seem to produce consensus, Boris N. Yeltsin's Russian republic has declared its intention to sort out the growing chaos on its own. "The central government has proven incapable of taking action," its spokesman explained. "Every time it needs to act, it has to reach agreement with all the republics. We simply cannot wait five months to stabilize the ruble. It all has to begin here, because only here can it be done quickly."

Two republics are going to play a pivotal role in future attempts to build some order out of the ruins of communism. One of them is Russia. The other is Ukraine, the powerful bread-basket state of 51 million people along the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.

On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls in a referendum that will decide on the France-sized state's independence. After that emotionally charged vote is taken, Ukraine faces two alternatives. It can either daydream in the hubris of the moment about burning bridges to the former Soviet empire or join Russia as an advocate for a new commonwealth of sovereign states.

Only the course of conciliation and cooperation carries the promise of true independence and improvement Ukraine and the other former Soviet republics so desperately desire.

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