Oppressive regimes are most vulnerable to popular revolt when they give up their coercive ways and embark on liberal reforms. The nationalist tide now sweeping Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Soviet Union is the latest example of this paradox:
--Dec. 16, 1986. Moscow replaces the native party chief in Kazakhstan with an ethnic Russian. Normally, such actions would raise few eyebrows among Soviet citizens, but this time thousands of students take to the streets of the capital of Kazakhstan. Rioters assault the militia, overturn cars, burn a store. Heavy reinforcements are called in to discourage further protests.
--July 25, 1987. Three hundred Crimean Tatars stage a demonstration at the Kremlin wall. They demand the right to return to their homeland from which they were evicted in 1944 on the trumped-up charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Bewildered police watch as the protesters chant "Motherland or Death!" The demonstrations are broken up, but not before the government forms a commission to investigate the grievances.
--Aug. 23, 1987. Five hundred Lithuanians assemble in Vilnus to mark the anniversary of the secret Stalin-Hitler pact that allowed the Soviet Union to annex three Baltic states. The demonstrations quickly spread to neighboring Latvia and Estonia, where crowds gather to hear defiant speeches honoring the victims of Stalin and decrying creeping Russification. The authorities denounce the peaceful gatherings but elect not to use force.
--Feb. 11, 1988. Hundreds of thousands of people fill the streets in the Armenian capital of Yerevan demanding an end to Azerbaijani control over the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region. Gorbachev meets with Armenian activists and pledges personal attention to their complaints. The nationalists agree to call a one-month moratorium on demonstrations.
In former times Soviet authorities would nip each uprising in the bud and spare no force to teach the culprits a lesson. In the era of glasnost , the government eschews openly repressive measures, yet alternatives consistent to the Marxist creed are hard to come by.
Nationalism has always posed a problem for Marxists, who welcome it as a force against imperialism but decry it as a barrier to internationalism. The Second Communist International broke down in 1914 after socialist parliamentarians voted to support their governments' efforts in World War I. Ever since, Marxists have had difficulties explaining why class solidarity among workers takes a back seat to their nationalist and religious aspirations.
To be sure, ethnic fissures predate communist revolutions. People in Kazakhstan have not forgotten how their nomadic ancestors were slaughtered by the czarist troops during the campaign of forced settlement. The Armenians still bristle at the indignities that their Muslim neighbors once inflicted on them. The Russians have their own horror tales to recite about the 250 years of Mongol-Tatar rule. But communist policies often did little to heal these ancient wounds.
While Lenin deplored Russian chauvinism and at least in theory urged a sensitivity to ethnic feelings, his successors showed no tolerance for nationalist sentiments. Stalin was particularly ruthless, ordering the wholesale extermination of national elites, banishing peoples from their ancient homelands and decreeing Russian as the language of instruction in ethnic schools.
In recent decades nationalist discontent has focused on economic issues, with the mineral-rich republics trying to move industries closer to resources and Moscow resisting the move because it might exacerbate the employment situation in the industrial areas of the Russian Republic.
There is no neat solution to ethnic divisions in the Soviet Union. But then the problem is hardly unique to the Soviet Union. The conflicts between American Indians and European settlers, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Afrikaners and blacks in South Africa show that the West has no monopoly on virtue in the nationality question.
Nationalism is among the most potent social forces in the modern world. It offers a glimmer of hope to the oppressed, a ready source of meaning to those overwhelmed by the irrationalities of daily life. It also stirs passions that easily turn ugly and self-defeating. Only a great statesman can master this primeval social instinct and turn it into a constructive force for change.
Whether Gorbachev is up to this challenge, no one knows. Two things work for him in the present situation: He is acutely aware that the task he faces is a formidable one, and many nationalists understand that pushing their demands too hard could bring down the regime without alleviating their problems.
In the meantime, Gorbachev has to ponder specific options. He can fall back on the policy of repression, putting his glasnost campaign on hold, or he can offer concessions to the nationalists and risk the ire of the ideological watchdogs. In either case his statesmanship is due for what could be the toughest test of his political career.