The Soviet Union's disintegration into 15 independent republics may have been only the opening act in its post-Communist drama. Now a number of minorities inside the Russian Federation, the largest and most populous of all the parts of the former Soviet Union, are clamoring for independence. Last week, the 3.6 million people of Tatarstan voted for "sovereignty," possibly starting a chain reaction among 16 other minority nationalities which have their autonomous republics within Russia.
For various reasons, the minorities are restless. Some think they are getting too little for the natural resources, food or industrial products they sell to the fiscally strained government in Moscow. Others are motivated by political goals. The president of Tatarstan, for example, supported the failed hard-line coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev and now does not feel comfortable with Boris N. Yeltsin's efforts to build a free-market economy on the ruins of communism. Thus, "sovereignty" or "independence" would give him a way to keep the old Communist ruling elite in power.
For the time being, Tatarstan claims it has no plans to leave the Russian Federation. Nevertheless the enclave along the Volga River wants to keep its options open and does not want to sign a federation agreement that would govern Russia's relations with its minority jurisdictions.
Tatarstan may be a case of crypto-communism trying to survive. But to those familiar with Russia's age-old nationality problems, its political antics spell trouble. If oil-rich Tatarstan goes its own way, what would prevent the Siberian area of Yakutia, Russia's main producer of diamonds, from splitting as well? And if they go, why would other minority nationalities stay as part of Russia? The potential for ethnic and political separatism is so great that Paul Goble, one of the most insightful American analysts on the former Soviet Union, predicts Siberia east of Lake Baikal will declare its independence from Russia by next year.
President Yeltsin's reaction so far has been eerily similar to Mr. Gorbachev's clumsy behavior when he had to deal with nationalist demands. And since Mr. Yeltsin has no more experience in nationality matters than did Mr. Gorbachev, he is likely to repeat many of the mistakes that ultimately led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Yet the two situations are not identical. For one thing, ethnic Russians are the majority nationality in many of the autonomous republics. At this early stage of its ambitious economic reforms, the Yeltsin administration also is likely to acknowledge how crucial those mineral-rich areas are to the overall success of Russia. Therefore, the Moscow government should not be averse toward negotiating special deals and arrangements to accommodate the would-be secessionists.