ROME. — Rome -- If the Ukraine is truly intent on leaving the Soviet Union, lock, stock and barrel, then it probably is only a matter of time before the nuclear-armed Muslim Asian republics, most of them until now relatively loyal to Moscow, also decide to cut all but economic links.
Who is going to pick up the pieces? Iran, descendant of the splendid Persian empire, which for 2,000 years was the most powerful political and cultural voice in Central Asia, or Turkey, grandson of the once all-powerful Ottoman empire, that spread Turkic languages from Azerbaijan in the west to Kirghizia in the east?
The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has just returned from a tour of the ex-Soviet Muslim republics, signaling that Tehran is now formally shedding the deference it always paid to the central authorities in Moscow.
We should watch this carefully. As seems to be the rule with this ex-communist pack of cards, it all can go quicker than we anticipate. Before we know where we are, there could be a strategic alliance between young Muslim nations with their inherited nuclear stockpiles (mainly short-range tactical weapons, but in Kazakhstan's case, inter-continental rockets) and the fundamentalist, imperial-minded Iran, a country that is also clearly intent on having its own nuclear weapons. The long-touted Islamic bomb has arrived.
Perhaps such fears of a fundamentalist hostile upsurge are exaggerated. Kremlin policy, over the years, had a healthy disregard for feudal practices. Many traditional Islamic institutions were destroyed, the clergy is weak and bereft of significant financial underpinning. Moreover, literacy is widespread, offering a less-fertile seed bed for extreme forms of religious intolerance.
Nevertheless, we risk being lulled into inattention by such a benign interpretation. Look at the recent, quite rapid growth of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajiki- stan. It could all catch fire quicker than we know, and if it did, it would be a very dangerous blaze. The West needs an insurance policy, and by far the best one available is Turkey.
We should gently encourage Turkey in its endeavor to be an alternative pole of attraction. Since Ataturk's time, Turkey has shied away from pan-Turkism and oriented itself toward Europe. Only very recently has it started to revise its posture. Turkey was the first country to recognize the proclaimed independence of Azerbaijan, and this week it played host to a visit by the president of Turkmenistan.
Turkey has a lot to offer the Muslim republics -- cheap, but sophisticated, industrial manufactures, produced by a country that has just gone through a show-piece period of fast economic growth, after throwing off many of the burdens of a state-controlled economy. Not least, Turkey appeals because, despite its Islamic interests, it has managed to create a viable long-lasting secular state.
The West needs to wake up. Europe would only have itself to blame if Turkey, finding new attractions in the east, turned its back on Europe. The West needs to take steps to anchor Turkey where it's long wanted to be -- inside the European Community.
It becomes ever more clearly apparent that Turkey not only geographically, but politically, is the critical bridge between the Judeo-Christian west and the Islamic east. President Turgut Ozal sought to drive this point home by the alacrity with which he put Turkey at the service of the anti-Saddam Hussein coalition in the Gulf War.
The same forceful thinking has been missing in Europe. Turkey's 1987 application to join the European Community has been treated with grudging condescension, rather than as a magnificent opportunity to help bridge two fast polarizing worlds. The reasons given -- Turkey's economic backwardness, the size of its population and its poor record in human rights -- all have their justification. But at bottom, much of the European negativism is the antique notion that to have 55 million Muslims free to move around in this ''Christian'' society would not be acceptable.
As Europe binds itself tighter and more exclusively, it needs to make a convincing demonstration that it is not a privileged, ethnically pure fortress. It sits too close to a resurgent Muslim world to get away with that for long. Saddam Hussein may be a present-day aberration, but there are likely to be more of his ilk in the future if the dividing lines become too pronounced.
Turkey offers both a geopolitical and a cultural link between the two worlds. It is strange that European leaders appear blind to what it offers. Once the Maastricht mist clears, they need to open their eyes eastward.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.