NEWS ANALYSIS : Nationalism Stirs Turmoil in a Collapsing Soviet Union : Politics: Since the demise of communism, it has become a potent mobilizing force. The effects can be dangerous.


At first the tableau seemed familiar, and yet something was jarringly new.

Thousands of people had come into the streets of this warm, sun-dappled city to demand the ouster of the leader, a man they branded a dictator. He protected himself and his government with loyal troops, banned dissenting media and threw some opponents in prison.

One night, there was a fusillade in the streets, and people were shot to death. One man, aggrieved over the doctrinaire tyranny that had taken control of his land, doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight in fiery protest.

A violent flashback to the days of Soviet Communist rule, with democracts and anti-Moscow nationalists bravely challenging entrenched Leninist hard-liners loyal to the Kremlin?

Not this time--it was present-day politics in the Transcaucasian republic of Georgia, where the nationalist and fervently anti-Communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, is opposed by many who demonstrably are no less Georgian, anti-Communist or nationalistic than he.

It's all part of the new and bewildering topography of politics in what had been the Soviet Union, where the erstwhile villains--the Communists, the central bureaucracy, the military, the KGB, Russians--are no longer forces to contend with, or in many cases are completely absent.

Their eclipse hasn't always had the effect that had been expected or hoped for. With the demise of the all-powerful Soviet state and the dominant ideology of the Communist Party, other forces--some dark and ugly, others dormant or repressed for decades--have rushed in to fill the void.

"The most well-ordered place in the world is a prison. We have gotten out of prison, but we now don't know how to act," the Georgian prime minister, Vissarion A. Gugushvili, said in an interview when asked why politics had become so violently intolerant in his non-Communist, nominally independent republic.

Among the most potent of the new forces mobilizing the masses is nationalism--the call that only Georgians should rule Georgia, or the Ukrainian government ban on taking refrigerators and other items deemed of crucial economic importance out of the republic.

The effects of nationalism are seeping into the most unexpected nooks of day-to-day life--for instance, it is now virtually impossible to fly out of Yerevan, Armenia's capital, to other Soviet republics because the Azerbaijani rail blockade of Armenia has badly reduced deliveries of aviation fuel.

The official ideals in the Soviet Union were once "internationalism" and the creation of a uniform Homo Sovieticus, although it is true that such pseudoscience served largely to justify the Russification of society and heavy-handed rule from Moscow.

Now, increasingly, there is overt xenophobia and isolationism that in some locales seems directed specifically against the masters of yesteryear, the Russians.

"When you go to other republics, it happens that you're treated in a more respectful way if you speak in English rather than in Russian," Vitaly I. Goldansky, the director of the Moscow-based Institute of Chemical Physics, recently told a visitor. As well as the influence of Lenin, some republics now want to get rid of Pushkin and Tolstoy too.

In Tbilisi, for example, they've stripped the Russian-language signs from the subway, and unless a passenger understands the graceful curlicues of Georgian script, he is likely to become lost. Clearly, anyone who lives in Georgia is now expected to know Georgian.

When Gugushvili gave a recent news conference, his remarks were translated not into Russian but into English. It was an unmistakable political statement, a way to strike back at the empire.

In a warning growl that must have sent a shudder through many in the outlying republics, the Russian Federation State Council under President Boris N. Yeltsin proclaimed its readiness last Tuesday to use all legal methods to safeguard the "rights, lives, honor and dignity" of Russians living outside Russia. That the warning had to be issued at all shows how things are changing here.

Stripped of the repressive, doctrinaire but often comforting certainties of the past, Soviet society, in the view of some observers, seems to be undergoing a collective crisis of personality and embracing new, sometimes nasty beliefs as a result.

"The Communist ego, internationalism and all the rest, has fallen apart, disintegrated," commented Roman Szporluk, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University and a specialist on Soviet interethnic relations. "Now, these various peoples are trying to pick up the pieces and glue something together that works."

One byproduct is nationalism--the division of the world into "them" and "us"--a phenomenon that Szporluk finds completely natural.

"The problem is the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, Marxism-Leninism," he said. "Nationalism is an answer." The peoples that made up the Soviet republics have histories that go back, in some cases, for thousands of years, he noted, while the Soviet Union has existed for a mere seven decades.

"If someone told us that the peoples of Honduras, British Columbia, Maine and Cuba, for example, should be members of one state, we'd think they were crazy," Szporluk said. And yet that same logic has been used to justify the existence of the Soviet Union.

Nationalism, however, can be used to inhumane ends, and many observers, Western and Soviet, believe that it will increasingly be exploited as a mobilization tool with dire consequences.

In Southern Ossetia, the homeland of an ethnic minority inside Georgia, teachers began the new school year last week by asking their pupils to pause to honor the memory of their compatriots killed in the rancorous and continuing dispute with the Georgians over home rule.

The capital, Tskhinvali, remains under Georgian blockade, so humanitarian aid could not be sent in for the 12 people injured when the city was shelled by Georgian militants. In another incident, passengers were herded off a bus and taken hostage by the Georgians.

This ongoing tragedy is being played out not with the old-time Georgian Communist leadership but with a democratically chosen president, Gamsakhurdia, who got 87% of the vote in the elections last May.

The shockingly sad state of the Soviet economy can only aggravate such social and political frictions. As penury continues to be the daily lot for most Soviets, the danger of ethnic clashes increases as groups that are more and more nationalistic fight for their share of a shrinking pie, said Ronald Grigor Suny, professor of Armenian history at the University of Michigan and a specialist on Soviet ethnic affairs.

Also, one of the legacies of both Soviet rule and centuries of Russian imperial domination is already having disruptive consequences--namely, the dispersal of "colonial" populations throughout the territory of the Soviet Union.

Twenty-five million members of the once-dominant nationality, the Russians, now live outside the Russian Federation proper, and a total of 60 million to 65 million citizens live in lands that are not those of their ethnic group. All, now, may be regarded by the local populations as intruders, even invaders.

These internal "foreigners" have increasingly become the target of resentment and even violence since they often held the best-paying skilled jobs in factories or were sent by Moscow as a managerial class to Kirghizia, Turkmenistan or another republic the way the French used to dispatch top civil servants to Senegal or Ubangi-Shari.

Tens of thousands of the Russians and other Slavs in diaspora, alarmed at what the upsurge in local nationalisms may mean for them, have already boarded Aeroflot flights or trains and returned to their ethnic homeland.

Others are not as fortunate. The Soviet Union now has about 600,000 internal refugees, according to government officials--Meskhetian Turks chased from their homes in Uzbekistan, ethnic Armenians forced out of their farms and apartments in Azerbaijan, Russians fleeing civil unrest in Central Asia.

In one perverse manifestation of nationalist, anti-Russian sentiment, in some republics the anti-democratic creed espoused by yesterday's Communist Party barons is presented as legitimate and home-grown precisely because it is the opposite of what people in Moscow want. The tactic seems to be working marvelously.

"The urge to be fully independent from Russia can lead to reinforcing the type of regime that perished in Russia, exactly because it is different," Goldansky said. "Under the flag of nationalism, they are reinforcing an anti-popular democratic regime."

One example is Uzbekistan, where yesterday's Communist Party leader, Islam Karimov, led the campaign to proclaim independence from Moscow. The leaders of the old "partocracy"--rule by the party--have largely kept their hammerlock on politics and the economy, and criticism from outside is rejected the same way Idi Amin and other Third World dictators brushed off "imperialistic" meddling in their nations' affairs.

Merging the fervor of nationalism with time-tested Leninist organizational and repressive techniques, as seems to be the case in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tadzhikistan and some other republics, has caused some Soviets to worry aloud about the danger of a sort of fascism arising.

Enhancing their fears are the ominous parallels that can easily be drawn between the present-day Soviet Union and pre-Nazi Weimar Germany--the widespread sense of unremitting economic crisis, the bankruptcy of the old system of social values, the violent clashing of rival extremist creeds.

"The main danger is that if democratic governments in the republics, the local authorities and the leadership in Moscow cannot stop inflation and falling living standards, then disenchantment and disaffection with democracy will set in, and we may see the growth of national socialist feeling as a result," Anatoly A. Sobchak, the progressive mayor of St. Petersburg, said recently.

"Such nationalistic trends, Nazi trends, are growing stronger and stronger," he warned.

That danger is not limited to Central Asia; Sobchak sees signs of it in the now independent Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, in Moldova and Gamsakhurdia's Georgia and "even in Russia."

In that respect, there is still great uncertainty about the willingness of Yeltsin, Russia's leader, to adhere to the strictures of liberal democratic politics. Some critics fear that he is about to run roughshod over their republic's duly elected legislature or anyone else who gets in his way.

"The Communist Party of the Soviet Union may have collapsed, but the dominant psychology remains Bolshevik," remarked Stanislav N. Kondrashov, a political observer at the Izvestia newspaper. "Many of us, or most of us, believe that when we are right, everyone must agree with us."

Religious fervor or religious-based hostility--toward Soviet Jews, for example--may also become a key component of the new grid of values that will have to replace the wreckage of atheist materialism. But until now, there is little sign of the rising of largely Muslim Soviet Central Asia that an entire school of Western academics predicted for decades would logically follow the collapse of Soviet socialism.

Recently, in fact, the mufti of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the leader of some 50 million Muslims from the Sino-Soviet border to the rich bottom lands of the Volga delta, attended a conference on ethnic relations in Bishkek, the capital of Kirghizia, to plead for unity. His message was shunned by most participants.

"We are all brothers and members of the same nation," the mufti, Mohammed-Sodik Mohammed-Yussuf, told the conference, at which delegates from the Central Asian republics predominated.

That seemingly inoffensive remark "went over like a lead balloon," a participant recalled. "The Kirghiz are now interested in Kirghizian independence, the Kazakhs in their republic, et cetera."

Then there is the border question, summed up by the map of "greater" Georgia that hangs in many Tbilisi offices. Lands that the Georgians view as "historically" theirs are now part of Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey and are tinted on the map to reflect Georgia's claim.

When republic leaders gathered last week in Kazakhstan, picketers assembled to demand that large chunks of Russia--the Astrakhan, Volgograd, Samara, Omsk, Barnual, Tyumen and Chelyabinsk regions--be handed over to Kazakhstan.

"There are literally dozens of disputed areas," said the University of Michigan's Suny, whose forebears came from Nagorno-Karabakh, the region that Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over since 1988. "If ever the border issue is allowed to be raised, the Soviet Union will become like Africa--there will be permanent war."

For people who regard the unraveling of the Soviet Union with horror, such grim possibilities are the best argument for maintaining some sort of central administration.

Andrei S. Grachev, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's spokesman, recently said that "the experience that we already have in this country, including the resolution of such conflicts as the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, shows that in many instances, when they reject the services of the central authorities, parties to a conflict have great difficulty arriving at an agreement on their own and, more often than not, fail to reach one."

As life has become tougher and the future less certain, Kondrashov for one has seen a coarsening of the Russian people and a collective hardening of their hearts. He has seen a vivid example on the sidewalk outside Izvestia's offices on Tverskaya Street. About two years ago, the first beggars appeared, and passers-by gave generously. "But now people just walk around them to avoid them," he said.

"When the center, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, broke up, right away it became clear that this country had no common threads, nothing to unite it any longer," Kondrashov said. "Faith in democracy, human rights and a market economy could unite people again, but without normal economic conditions, the process will not succeed."

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