More Treaties and More Killing in the Former Soviet Union

June 28, 1992|By SCOTT SHANE

There they were last week in Istanbul, signing a declaration to transform the states of the Black Sea region into a prosperous European Community-style trade partnership. But those who had flown in from the Commonwealth of Independent States had a lot on their minds apart from lower tariffs.

The president of Moldova, who a few days earlier had declared that his republic was at war with Russia, sat beside the president of Russia, who had been threatening to invade Moldova. Ethnic fighting in Moldova involving heavy tanks and MIG fighters had leveled a number of towns and left about 1,000 people killed or wounded.

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan took time out from their long-running territorial war to come to the summit.

The leader of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, left for Istanbul as his National Guard finished rounding up rebels who had seized the main television broadcasting station in a coup attempt. As Soviet foreign minister, Mr. Shevardnadze had helped negotiate an end to the Cold War. He may be wondering why that was easier than to achieve lasting peace between former Soviet republics, neighboring ethnic groups or even Georgian factions.

The news from the Commonwealth of Combatant States, as Moscow News called it this month, has taken on a numbing familiarity.

After decades in the Soviet deep freeze, history has resumed with a vengeance. In mountainous Transcaucasia, old traditions of feuding and revenge are again in the ascendance. Moldova, once the prize in a century-long tug of war between the Ottoman and Russian empires, is torn again between those who look east and those who look west.

As in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, post-Communism is playing out so far not in peace and prosperity but in disintegration and strife. Released from the grip of Soviet totalitarianism, these states are finding a rocky road on the way to the stable market democracy most claim as their destination.

But it is not clear whether the violence of 1992 is the beginning of a spiral into chaos or a passing phase. For there is a trend running counter to the violence: the former Soviet republics are negotiating peace almost as furiously as they are threatening and fighting war.

On Tuesday, Russia and Ukraine signed a treaty settling many of their differences, which have sparked bitter saber-rattling. On Wednesday, a peacekeeping agreement was negotiated by Mr. Shevardnadze and Russian President Boris Yeltsin to halt the long-running guerrilla war between Georgians and the Ossetian minority. On Thursday, in addition to the Black Sea trade declaration, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Romania met for two hours and called for an immediate cease-fire in the Moldovan civil war.

Whether the rag-tag armies on the ground will heed the call, and for how long, is open to question. But the speed with which mutual recrimination turned to negotiations and truce reflected leaders' appreciation of the high stakes in the conflict, which aligns Moldovan forces against the ethnic Russian minority trying to carve out its own state along the republic's eastern border.

Moldova, known not so long ago mainly for its wine, is a Maryland-sized state sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. Of its 4.3 million people, 64 percent are ethnic Moldavians -- which is to say ethnic Romanians.

After Stalin annexed most of Moldova from Romania during World War II, the official Soviet propaganda media set out to create a separate, "Moldavian" nationality and language, with the goal of weakening Romania's claims to the territory. Residents of Soviet Moldavia (as the Soviets called Moldova) were forced to switch from the Latin alphabet used in Romania to the Cyrillic alphabet, and quisling scholars wrote learned tracts to prove that Moldavians were not Romanians.

In the nationalist reawakening that took place across the Soviet Union beginning in 1988, the myth of a separate Moldavian nationality was shattered. People rediscovered that they were ethnic Romanians, and Cyrillic was swiftly abandoned for Latin letters. "Moldavia," the Russianized name of the republic, was officially replaced by "Moldova," the Romanian form.

For one day in June 1990, bowing to nationalist demands, authorities opened the bridges over the River Prut, which separates Romania from Moldova. In a stunning celebration of ethnic unity, an estimated 1 million people crossed the river in both directions to see old friends and relatives or simply to have a look around.

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