Cold War Over, but Troubles Are Not POST-SOVIET STRIFE

January 03, 1993|By SCOTT SHANE

Quick: Name a country where thousands of people have been killed over the last few months in relentless klan and ethnic strife; where armed bands of young thugs roam freely; where hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, many across an international border; where some refugees, stranded in the mountains, are dying of exposure and starvation.

No, not Bosnia. And not Somalia. The answer is Tajikistan, and the reason you didn't know is that we, the media, haven't told you much about it. We haven't told you because we don't think you're much interested in it. And the reason you're not so interested is that the Cold War is over, the Soviet menace is dissipated, and Russia and the other former Soviet republics have become a tangled, tiresome story that's hard to follow.

One year after Kremlin guards lowered the flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for the last time, the sprawling territory that obsessed Americans for more than four decades seems to have plummeted on the public-interest scale. Only the occasional arms agreement -- such as the treaty to be signed at this weekend's summit -- surfaces to remind us of why we paid such close attention for so long.

Professionals who follow developments in the 15 countries that make up the diverse offspring of the U.S.S.R. say that while public and media inattention are understandable, it is permitting U.S. and Western policy in the region to drift. In the long run, that may prove dangerous to U.S. interests, they say.

"I fear that it's dropped off the American radar screen," says Paul A. Goble, a long-time State Department nationalities expert, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The American press has stopped covering this part of the world."

"I have the perception that the public has concluded that the story is over," says Blair A. Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington. "I think that's a lot of wishful thinking."

"If there's any region in the world that can undo whatever good has been done by the end of the Cold War, this is it," says Robert Legvold, professor of political science at Columbia University and former director of Columbia's Harriman Institute.

He notes that a ring of volatile countries surrounds the vast Soviet empire, incorporating North Korea and China, India and Pakistan, the Middle East, the Balkans and Poland. "Take the Yugoslavia example, on a much larger scale, in the heartland of Europe and Asia. If it becomes a pump of instability affecting those regions, it could create enormous problems for us," Dr. Legvold says.

Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs noted recently in The New Republic that of $24 billion in aid to the former Soviet Union pledged by the industrialized nations last April, about $10 billon has been delivered, with no overall plan and no firm link to economic reforms. Neglect of Russia, he said, was "the greatest foreign policy blunder of the Bush administration."

The United States may, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested in a 1990 article, have in relation to the end of the Cold War the problem of the car-chasing dog: what does he do with the car if, one day, he actually catches it?

Of several obvious reasons for drooping attention to the former Soviet republics, perhaps the most important are the disappearance of the clear-cut interpretive framework offered by the Cold War, and the perceived end of the threat of nuclear annihilation.

For many years, the struggle of "the free world" with "the evil empire" divided the world in two. The political battles of the perestroika period carried the same battle onto Soviet territory: first, it was reformers vs. hardliners within the Communist Party; later it was pro-market, anti-communist democrats vs. old-guard Communists -- ours versus theirs.

The failed coup of August, 1991, offered a satisfying ending to this morality play, the emotional equivalent of the white-hatted cowboy's final, victorious punch in a saloon brawl. Boris Yeltsin was perfectly cast for the part of the leading man.

President Bush has repeated over and over that we won the Cold War; in the hyperbole of the election campaign, he suggested that he had won the Cold War.

In a subtler, but ultimately similar argument, Francis Fukuyama, a foreign policy planner at the State Department and now at the Rand Corporation, wrote of "the end of history," first in an influential essay, later in a book. History, driven forward by the competition of social systems, is over, he argued. Now the endpoint of market democracy toward which the world is evolving has been decided.

There is substance to that argument. But in other ways, the end of Soviet totalitarianism marked not the end of history, but its messy resumption. It is the thaw at the end of a long winter, which is a mixed blessing, as Russians well know: the spring, grimiest of seasons, is when roads used all winter become impassable, houses flood, food stocks are most sparse.

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