Disunion, Reunion So What's So Wrong With a New Commonwealth Replacing the Soviet Union?

December 15, 1991|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,Scott Shane was Moscow correspondent of The Sun from April, 1988 until July, 1991.

Unbreakable union of free republics,

United for the ages by Great Russia!

Hail the great, mighty Soviet Union

Created by the peoples' will!

Glory to the fatherland, our free fatherland!

Friendship of the peoples is a reliable bulwark!

The Party of Lenin, strength of the people,

Is leading us to the triumph of Communism!

-- National anthem of the Soviet Union (1917-1991 R.I.P.)

After 74 years, the grand strains of the Soviet national anthem resound only with irony. The unbreakable union has broken up. The Party of Lenin is banned. The friendship of the peoples has proven not so reliable. And hardly anybody anymore wants to be led to the triumph of Communism.

The great, mighty Soviet Union is dead. But maybe -- just mayb -- a new union of truly free republics has just been born.

You wouldn't have guessed it from some of the doomsday talk i both East and West. After the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus last week unveiled their December Surprise, a new Commonwealth of Independent States, two men sounded somber warnings about the demise of the Soviet Union, both invoking the harrowing prospect of a nuclear Yugoslavia.

One was Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who denounced the pact Monday as "illegal and dangerous." The other was CIA Director Robert M. Gates, who warned Tuesday of "the most significant disorder in the former Soviet Union since the Bolsheviks consolidated power."

But wait a minute. Wasn't this new Commonwealth of Independent States, hatched in a day of negotiations at a Byelarussian hunting lodge, awfully like the new, looser union that Mr. Gorbachev supposedly was seeking? And wasn't this pact on military and economic affairs, signed by the elected leaders of three of the four Soviet republics that have strategic nuclear weapons, just the kind of reassurance the West is looking for?

Yes, and yes. Last weekend's agreement was a giant step back from the brink of civil war and nuclear chaos. At a stroke, it created the core of a potentially stable, peaceful, democratic alliance to succeed the disintegrating Soviet Union It banished the nightmare that territorial spats between Russia and Ukraine could spiral into armed conflict. The swift approval of the parliaments of the three Slavic republics demonstrated a broad consensus that the commonwealth was the right path.

At its birth, the Commonwealth already comprised 72 percent of the Soviet population and 80 percent of Soviet land area. Armenia and Kirgizia swiftly signed on; other republics seemed nearly as eager to join the Commonwealth as they had been to quit the Soviet Union a couple of months before.

Kazakhstan, the fourth republic with strategic nuclear arms seemed to be inching its way toward signing, despite some hurt feelings over whether President Nursultan Nazarbayev really had been invited to the initial negotiations. (Perhaps only in the post-Soviet Union is a claim that the phones weren't working a credible excuse for a failure to communicate between two presidents.)

The betting was that for 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, it would be difficult to build a market economy in isolation from Russia, with its sheer size and huge energy resources. The three Baltic republics, whose independence has been recognized around the world, are forging ties to Scandanavian countries and are determined to go it alone. A persistent report that Lithuania might be considering joining was squelched Friday by Lithuanian embassy spokesman Victor Nakas.

The Soviet military brass, after pitches from both Russia President Boris N. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev, appeared to be betting on the Commonwealth. The Soviet president could appeal to the patriotism of officers whose vow, after all, is to defend the Soviet Union. But as the Russian proverb says, "money doesn't smell." Mr. Yeltsin had just consented to bail out the Soviet government and keep the lights burning in Mr. Gorbachev's office. The penurious Soviet president is in no position to finance the army.

So why were Messrs. Gorbachev and Gates not rejoicing? Bot were reflecting long-held convictions that happen to coincide with their self-interest.

Mr. Gorbachev argued that the three leaders, Russia's Yeltsin Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Byelarus, had no right to take such a momentous step without consulting their parliaments or their people. The parliaments, by ratifying the agreement, answered his objection. As for the people, the unelected Mr. Gorbachev is on thin ice questioning three elected leaders' right to represent their people's interests. In any case, three heads of sovereign states (which the republics were, technically, even under the Soviet Constitution) surely have a right to sign a treaty.

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