Soviet Disunion: When the Costs of Empire Outweigh Its Benefits : Imperialism: With the world’s last remaining empire showing signs of breakup, what will follow? Six experts venture some predictions.

<i> Andrew Blankstein, editorial pages researcher, conducted the Soviet interviews</i>

A ll empires in time dissolve, whether under the pressure of war, through internal decay, or simply by decision of the imperial power that the time has come to grant independence to subject peoples. The Soviet Union, a land of 15 constituent republics and more than 100 ethnic groups, is the world’s last remaining empire. How much longer can it hold together? The Times asked six specialists on Soviet affairs for their views on whether the next five or 10 years would see a reconfigured Soviet Union.

Alex Alexiev, senior analyst of Soviet Affairs, the RAND Corp.:

What we are seeing is the decline of the last European empire. Whenever there is a situation of imperial decline, the costs begin vastly to exceed the benefits of having such an empire. That has happened throughout history. The Russians have suffered more than most imperial powers in terms of economic costs and the destruction of their culture. Many of them realize that they would be better off without these other nationalities and that they themselves cannot be free as long as they oppress others. By the end of the century, the Soviet Union as we know it will no longer exist. Reconfigured, it could resemble a confederation of some parts of the Soviet Union, comprising, for example, the Slavic republics of Russia, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. In fact, it is possible that the Soviet Union as such may simply disappear, replaced by an independent Russia that has gone back to its historical ethnic borders. The Russian republic has great potential simply because it is endowed with huge natural resources and has a relatively small, very well-educated population of about 150 million people.

The big question is whether this disintegration will proceed peacefully or in a violent manner, whether the Soviet Union will explode or implode. And that of course has implications for all of us. It is in our interests to realize that the process has already started and that it’s not reversible. Elements in the Soviet Union today, such as the military leadership and the party die-hards, are willing to do anything to prevent the collapse of the empire. That raises a real possibility of violence. What is happening in Lithuania and other places is an effort to stop this process by use of force. This is very dangerous and we should not encourage it.


The Bush Administration operates on the assumption that whatever Mikhail S. Gorbachev does is good because he is for perestroika. We should not encourage Gorbachev to think that he can save the Soviet empire by force and blackmail. If we do, we may be encouraging those who think they can keep the empire together by force of arms.

Marshall D. Shulman,senior lecturer on international politics, the Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, Columbia University:

There are three questions that are likely to determine the future of the Soviet Union: Economically, whether the regime is able to make the economy turn around by reversing the decline in living standards and improving the amount of consumer goods and food available.

Politically, whether it will bring enough flexibility to bear in negotiations with the minority nationalities so as to make them willing to join a confederal state where they have a sufficient degree of autonomy to satisfy their national aspirations.

Finally, what will happen to the Communist Party: whether it will survive, split, weaken, and whether its place as an organizing force will be taken in time by other social and political forces. The answer to any one of the three may not be clear for some time.

The three Baltic republics are the most likely candidates for secession. Georgia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan and perhaps even the Ukraine are others. If events proceeded that far, there would be the possibility of the formation of an inner core of the old Russia, which would consist of the Russian republic, perhaps Byelorussia, the Ukraine--if it did not secede--and then whatever republics were left. This is the aim of some of the Russian nationalists--to recreate the old Russia without the external appendages.

Another possibility is that the process of secession could go a certain distance. The Baltics might secede. Some sort of confederal relationship could be worked out giving the remaining republics a higher degree of autonomy. A treaty of union is now being drafted which seeks to define what the relationship of the central government to the more autonomous national republics would be.

Some among the Russians, as distinguished from the other nationalities, have a very strong feeling that the old Russian identity has been threatened by modernization, diluted by other cultures and the barbarism of the communist revolution. Some of them are very strongly attracted to the idea of recreating, preserving and protecting the Russian soul, spirit and culture. They are among those that would favor a pure Russian state rid of the other appendages. Others among the Russian nationalists, however, are still attracted to the idea of the empire as it was at its maximum growth. Among both of them you find yearnings for very strong leadership: Some favor a restoration of the monarchy and restoration of the Orthodox church. But they are not homogeneous, they are not unified about what they favor.

If what remained was a central core of Russian republics with a dominant Russian nationality, it would obviously be relatively more homogeneous, which would give it a certain stability. It would have very considerable resources of its own despite lacking some of the resources of the outlying republics, which to some extent have been a drain on the Russian republic. It could indeed be quite viable economically. The oil reserves in Siberia, for example, are still very considerable but difficult to get at.

Archie Brown,professor of politics, Oxford University:

The Soviet Union has become a more unpredictable place than ever before. Clearly, Gorbachev is still hoping that a new-style federation will keep all the republics together. However, it seems likely that in fact some will secede. It is extremely difficult to forecast the degree of stability that will prevail. A lot depends upon the implementation and the success of the economic reforms. After all, the Russian Republic is very rich in natural resources, and if the Soviet Union can make a breakthrough to a more efficient economic system there could indeed be greater prosperity. It’s difficult to imagine much more prosperity within a five-year time scale. Gorbachev’s problem is that the time scale for achieving genuine economic improvement is greater than the period he is likely to have available to him as Soviet leader.

There would be a lot to be said for a loose federation or confederation of the existing republics, or possibly the existing republics without the Baltic states, though even then there could be a mutual benefit in a close economic association between the Baltic republics and the rest of the existing Soviet Union. Provided each republic has far more political and economic autonomy, I don’t see any great advantage in independent statehood for them. The Russian republic itself could ultimately survive on its own, provided they get away from their ludicrous degree of centralization. A new-style genuine federation might help to produce better economic results. The problem is that in several republics, people’s national and political aspirations have already gone beyond that and it will require tremendous political skill to persuade them to accept a new-style federation.

Mark Kramer,research fellow, Brown University Center for Foreign Policy Development.

The Soviet Union will be smaller, but in absolute size it is going to make a negligible difference. The question is whether it will be able to hold the most important of the non-Russian republics, the Ukraine. If the Baltics, Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldavia are allowed to go, then it creates a precedent that Ukrainian nationalists might use. The Ukraine would be very difficult to let go of because of its large population of about 52 million, its resources, agricultural wealth and industrial concentration. Russia would really be relegated to backwardness, probably for decades, without the Ukraine. Any Soviet leader who would consider letting go of the Ukraine is likely to be removed.

There will be an attempt to move to a much looser federation, such as the Hapsburg Empire or an even looser confederation like a British Commonwealth arrangement, but not independent states. That arrangement will be acceptable to some of the republics that benefit economically from being part of the Soviet Union, particularly the Central Asian republics. But I don’t see that option as being satisfactory to, say, the Baltic peoples, the Georgians or the Azerbaijanis. (Their) path to independence will emerge either when it becomes too costly to hold onto these republics through military force or economic sanctions, or through the new law on secession that is now being considered.

There do tend to be concentrations of specific industries in some of the non-Russian republics. Virtually all Soviet oil refining capacity is located om Azerbaijan, for example. So if Azerbaijan were somehow to break away, the Soviet Union would suffer quite considerably. Oil exports account for half of Soviet hard currency revenues. Oil is an important element of exchange with countries that don’t trade in hard currency, such as Cuba, Vietnam and some Eastern European countries. Even a year or two disruption in the flow of oil could cause very significant short-term problems.

The greatest sentiment for independence is in the republics that the Soviet Union annexed immediately before and after World War II. If the Soviet Union were to return to a pre-1939 configuration, that would get rid of the most expensive republics, particularly the three Baltic states and Moldavia, where there has been concern recently because of increasing border tensions with Romania.

Moldavia could be the next crisis for the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union did go back to a pre-1939 configuration, the problems of Georgia and Azerbaijan would still have to be dealt with. Armenia is likely to remain part of the Soviet Union, if for no other reason than to have a secure defense against Azerbaijan.

Dimitri Shalin,visiting scholar, Russian Research Center, Harvard University:

I think it likely that the borders of the Soviet Union will be different 10 years from now. By then the Baltic states will probably have negotiated their way out of the union. I suspect that Moldavia, and possibly Azerbaijan and Georgia, would try to move in the same direction. Would that lead to a desperate situation? I would point out that the major resources--industry, raw materials, human capital--would still be inside the Russian Federated Republic.

What should Gorbachev do? He could say that we realize that our union has not been formed based on the freely expressed will of the constituent republics. Force has been employed in such cases as the Baltic republics to bring and keep people within the union. Given this, there should be a referendum in each republic to determine whether its population wants to secede or remain part of the union. In that case, Gorbachev would seize moral high ground and would allow democratic means to determine the union’s future. It’s far better than dragging his feet and being in the position of trying to prevent the inevitable.

Moreover, I think that things are so bad right now that it probably would be better if the country were smaller, because then relations between the remaining republics could be based more on mutual interests, more on economic exchange than on commands. One silver lining is that even as all this turmoil goes on, you find a new generation finally coming into its own, one that is not schooled in the traditional political ideology of the Communist Party.

Some say that the situation right now is very close to explosion. Others say that people are really exhausted, that a certain depression has set in. The future could bring many things, including some local melees and riots. However, it’s encouraging that voters turned down the attempts of the right-wing nationalists to ascend to power. But there is certainly going to be further disintegration. The fabric of society is unraveling, crime is on the rise everywhere, and I think it will go on like this for quite awhile.

Adam Ulam,director, Russian Research Center, Harvard University:

The chances are 50-50 that the next 10 years will see a smaller Soviet Union, but the process of getting to that point would probably mean civil war. The Baltic states would get independence, but that would only lead to a sort of a domino effect that would see other republics--Georgia, eventually the Ukraine--demanding it as well.

The alternative for the regime, which is less likely, is to develop some genuine confederative system, which would appease the Baltics and others by providing for widespread autonomy and local power, but leave foreign and military affairs under central control. Those republics would have accepted such an arrangement it if had been proposed two years ago.

So if Gorbachev produces some sort of sensible plan there is still hope, though not much, that he can hold things together. But if the Baltics secede, chances are that other republics will try to as well. There would probably be very strong reaction within the Russian center of the empire. And that might lead to some sort of military or other kind of dictatorship, which would not contribute to stability.