PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Self-Determination: the First Right : When a people chooses statehood, it must be recognized by others if individual freedoms are to be defended.

With a flourish befitting an Isaac Asimov novel, three days in August transported us into an entirely different country. And the West must relate to this new system-in-the-making on an entirely different basis than it did before Aug. 21.

Having staked everything on Mikhail Gorbachev, who had proclaimed perestroika but impeded actual changes that would inevitably limit his power, the West tirelessly strived for the preservation of the Soviet Union. Although it ecstatically greeted the liberation of Eastern Europe, the West steadfastly denied the right of freedom for the Soviet peoples.

By focusing on the issue of leadership at the center and paying no heed to the national aspirations of the republics, the West proved to be profoundly undemocratic. Before the coup, Western interest in Soviet affairs revolved around the conflict of two personalities, Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. But the issue was actually something entirely different: Whether a given people--the people of Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Armenia or any other nation, republic or autonomous region, including Russia itself--has the right to choose its own statehood and destiny.

On March 12, 1990, Lithuania declared its independence. Why did it take a year and nine months to recognize its legitimacy, as well as that of Latvia and Estonia? (For that matter, what could possibly explain why the West refused to recognize the right to independence of Slovenia and Croatia from the very start?) Is it easier to normalize international relations after a blood-bath?

The most popular responses to these questions sound rather naive today: "We were trying to help Gorbachev and perestroika. We were hoping to preserve the U.S.S.R." And why was that? To facilitate the West's dealings with the country? And what about the people who live in it?

Are Western democrats truly indifferent to how people fare under totalitarianism? Is this why they so easily forgive anything at all, even a nightmare like tanks crushing students in Tian An Men Square?

The West must not only rethink the approach it has taken over the past six years, it must also rethink the very concept of human-rights protection. This protection should not be based on the meager charity of the Helsinki Accords, obtained in exchange for legitimization of the post-war partition of Europe, but rather on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principal charter of humanity under the flag of the United Nations. Most of us have for decades defended the rights of the individual person as listed in its 30 articles. And yet we bypassed the preamble, which says, "it is necessary for human rights to be protected by the power of the law, in order for a person not to have to use the last resort of rebellion against tyranny and oppression."

These words pertain to nations, not individuals. They speak of the right of Iraqi Kurds, Lithuanians, Croatians or Armenian peasants from Nagorno-Karabakh to struggle against tyranny. They require of the international community, if not an outright armed intervention as called for on behalf of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, then at the very least immediate international diplomatic support in the cases of Eastern European countries, republics of Yugoslavia and all republics of the former Soviet Union that have proclaimed their independence.

Diplomatic recognition and positive attitudes toward such declarations of independence serve as safeguards of one of the most fundamental rights--that of self-determination. Such recognition can often prevent otherwise imminent bloodshed. No geopolitical or so-called Realpolitik considerations can take precedence over the protection of human rights and the right of a given people's self-determination.

For nearly half a century, we have honored the principle of inviolability of borders, while forgetting just what the principle applies to. It is accepted that national borders are not to be breached from without, as in Afghanistan or Kuwait. But this concept has not been applied to Lithuania or Slovenia, for example, when their people or lawful parliaments decided to create or restore their sovereign statehood. Isn't that, too, an inviolable right?

Until such a time when international law clearly defines and codifies the principles of inviolability of borders and national self-determination, we will be unable to defend human rights--the rights of peoples and individuals--in their full scope.

This is the most crucial and urgent issue in my country today.

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