Russian Nationalism: Coming to a Boil in the 'Near Abroad'

December 19, 1993|By WILL ENGLUND

Moscow -- So far, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky has been uncharacteristically mum on the fate of Ilie Ilascu, a man whose death, if it should happen, could come to stand for the defining moment of a resurgent Russian nationalism.

That nationalism is suddenly visible everywhere. Mr. Zhirinovsky startling success in last Sunday's elections was emblematic of an emboldened Russian nationalism, not only in Russia proper but among ethnic Russians living in the other former republics of the Soviet Union.

Everywhere, it seems, those Russians who were cut off from their motherland by the breakup of the Soviet Union two years ago are preparing to stand up for what they believe is theirs. And even as this mood has grown, these restive people now believe they have a friend in Moscow behind them.

Mr. Ilascu is the unfortunate test case. He is sitting in a jail cell in Tiraspol, capital of a breakaway region of Moldova that is dominated by ethnic Russians.

He has been condemned to die before a firing squad for committing "terrorist" acts on behalf of Moldova. The Moldovans have demanded his release, as have the neighboring Romanians, who are ethnically and culturally related to the Moldovans.

His captors have been unmoved. They sense that the winds are blowing their way.

No country has been so torn asunder by resentful Russian nationalists as independent Moldova (until the breakup, it was the Soviet republic Moldavia). The ethnic Russians have their "Dnestr Republic" in the eastern third of Moldova. They have the support of the Russian 14th Army, still stationed in Moldova two years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. They have in their hands a time bomb just waiting to go off.

But from the shores of the Baltic to the steppes of Central Asia, Russian nationalism has been a difficult, thorny issue for nearly all of the former Soviet republics.

And now the nationalists back home, led by Mr. Zhirinovsky, are taking center stage, after their strong showing in Sunday's elections. The relative triumph of Mr. Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party raised immediate alarms in those countries the Russians call the "near abroad."

The leaders of the three Baltic nations -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- met Wednesday and appealed for NATO protection against Russian expansionism.

President Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine warned that the "forces of revenge" were on the march in Russia and, if not checked, would unleash "giant cataclysms" on the world.

Kazakhstan (which, like Ukraine, has a share of old Soviet nuclear weapons) delivered a formal protest to Moscow over Mr. Zhirinovsky campaigning even before the election was held. His appearances were blacked out on Kazakh television.

Mircea Snegur, the president of Moldova, said the showing of the Liberal Democrats was a direct threat to his country.

The problem faced by Russia's neighbors is two- fold. They fear a renewal of Russian expansionism, directed out of Moscow, and they fear the Russians already living in their midst.

The Russian settlers living in a small country like Estonia are a deeply resentful, haughty community, whose sense of dispossession has been sharpened by often disdainful treatment they get from the local authorities.

Those who retained their Russian citizenship, and were allowed to vote last Sunday, overwhelmingly opted for Mr. Zhirinovsky.

In Ukraine, traditionally Russian areas of the country have grown increasingly restless as the economy has collapsed. As the nationalists were surging to the forefront in Russia over the past two weeks, coal miners in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine were starting to talk about some form of autonomy for their region -- a move that could spell disaster for Kiev.

But what has the Ukrainians particularly upset right now is not Mr. Zhirinovsky himself but the reaction of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Mr. Yeltsin has consistently portrayed himself as a patriot first and foremost, and Mr. Zhirinovsky rise seems only to have reinforced that inclination.

When he met with Vice President Al Gore last week, Mr. Yeltsin lashed out at Ukrainian intransigence over the dismantling of nuclear weapons.

The leader of the populist democratic Rukh faction in Kiev, Vyacheslav Chornovil, retorted that Russian democracy was showing itself to be immature and "poisoned with the imperial mentality."

"If President Yeltsin does not dissociate himself from Zhirinovsky," Mr. Chornovil said, "Ukraine will have no choice but to stand by its position on nuclear weapons."

Clearly, said Yuri Zbitnev, leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, "Yeltsin has begun responding to the new balance of power in his country."

As difficult and complicated as Russian-Ukrainian relations are likely to be in the years to come, though, the most likely flash point of Russian nationalism -- of renewed Russian arrogance -- would seem to be Moldova.

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