Creating a Post-Soviet Reality

December 29, 1991

Lowering the red hammer-and-sickle banners of the Soviet Union and replacing them with the colors of independent states was the easy part. Now begins the nightmare scramble of creating a functioning superstructure that will enable the 12 former Soviet republics to deal with one another. In the eyes of the world, the viability of the new Commonwealth of Independent States will be judged by the way this difficult process of accommodation is carried out.

The Bush administration acted wisely in adopting a policy of gradualism in extending full diplomatic ties to former Soviet republics after President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's resignation. Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan all will have U.S. embassies as soon as practicable. The independence of the other six members of the Commonwealth -- Moldova, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Georgia -- also won Washington's recognition but the establishment of full diplomatic links is tied to their democratic behavior. That this approach is fully warranted is shown by the events in Georgia, where a bloody power struggle continues.

In the highly probable chaos of the next few months, foreign countries, particularly the United States, are likely to have more leverage among these newly independent republics than would be possible in settled conditions.

In the past, even at times of the most virulent communist slander, America was looked upon as the country by which Soviet progress had to be measured. Respectful acceptance and aid by Americans now is an overriding goal of every former Soviet republic. That decision-makers are ready to go to unbelievable lengths to achieve this goal was demonstrated recently, when the new KGB chief handed over to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow the devices and blueprints Soviets had used in bugging the American embassy.

The United States' ability to influence the new post-Soviet arrangements may be at its peak now. Certainly all the 11 participants -- Georgia is the lone holdout -- at tomorrow's Commonwealth summit in Minsk are aware of the importance Washington attaches to iron-clad and unified control of nuclear arms and other military matters in the former Soviet empire. If the Commonwealth fails to resolve this question without delay, how can it have any credibility in other decisions?

The Commonwealth summit ought to give a reliable early reading about the commitment of member states to cooperation and shared policies. Mr. Gorbachev is not alone in expressing fears that the loose power-sharing arrangement is unworkable and will lead to economic confusion and ethnic violence. If definitive agreements on military, economic and political matters can be hammered out in Minsk, however, the Commonwealth will have passed its first test.

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