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Its Hour Come, a New State Slouches Toward Moscow to Be Born : Commonwealth: The Soviet Union is dying, but many of its functions, including control of foreign affairs, have yet to be assumed by the new regime.

<i> Raymond L. Garthoff, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a retired Foreign Service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria</i>

The Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as it has existed for 70 years, is no more. But it has not yet ceased to exist, and this delicate moment of uncertain transition is a time of special peril. Even the three republic leaders who announced the founding of a new Commonwealth of Independent States, while preemptory in announcing the end of the Soviet Union, at least said it “is ceasing its existence,” not that it had ceased to exist.

The point is not academic. Mikhail S. Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union, and the Supreme Soviet and Congress of Peoples Deputies, may be superfluous. But what about the union’s executive organs? Above all, what about the Soviet armed forces, all members of which have taken an oath of loyalty to the Soviet Union? Moreover, many servicemen are not citizens of the commonwealth republics.

What about obligations, internally and externally, of the Soviet Union in those republics not part of the commonwealth? Again, the leaders of the commonwealth republics have undertaken to “guarantee the fulfillment of international obligations, treaties and agreements of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” but what about treaties signed on behalf of the former union--including treaties on strategic- and conventional- arms reduction--but not yet ratified?

The declaration of the original commonwealth leaders states activities of the Soviet Union “on the territories of the states members of the commonwealth are ended.” Even if so, what of the activities on other territories--for example, the Soviet embassies? Or, more ominously, what of armies and arms--including nuclear weapons--in other republics of the former Soviet Union? And what about the Soviet armed forces in other countries--in the Baltic states, Poland and Germany?

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In short, while the Soviet Union “is ceasing” to exist, it has not been replaced in all its functions. Gorbachev is unlikely to revive the old federal union, or to gain acceptance for the new union he had been seeking--a confederative Union of Sovereign States. Yet he is the residual leader of a union fading but not yet dead and still playing an important if transitional role.

This uneasy time of transition to a commonwealth may be brief, but that is not yet clear. Nor is the outcome. There are answers to all the illustrative questions posed above, but there is more than one answer to most, and the difference could be crucial to stability of the area and even the world.

Gorbachev’s position is one critical variable. He may resign. He may accept the commonwealth, particularly if offered the position as chairman of its coordinating body--but that is unlikely. Finally, if he continues to bid for the support of the Soviet military, it could lead to a fragmentation of the armed forces and possibly civil war--but that is also unlikely. The most satisfactory outcome would be a negotiated agreement on phasing out the remaining union functions reached by Gorbachev, the three original commonwealth leaders--Boris N. Yeltsin, Leonid M. Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich--preferably President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and perhaps some other republic leaders.

Historians will long debate whether the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable, and what was the turning point that led to its collapse. While we now know it was not possible to revive the Soviet Union through Gorbachev’s “restructuring,” or perestroika, from 1985 to 1991, we do not know whether a different pattern of change might have succeeded. What if more sweeping economic reform had been mounted in the mid-1980s? What if a devolution of power to the republics had been worked out at that same time, rather than attempted only after the slow pace of economic and political reform had further discredited any union? Clearly, the commonwealth has one great advantage over Gorbachev’s successive new unions: It is not tagged with burdens of past failures and the sins of “Moscow.” Gorbachev’s union of 1989, or even November, 1991, might have been fashioned into a “commonwealth,” but it bore the stain of being devised at “the center.”

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The centrifugal tendencies that triumphed in late 1991 were not wholly and, in most cases, not even primarily “nationalist” or “ethnic.” Rather, a major source of popular support for independence was the widespread belief that decisions made in Moscow were responsible for the worsening economic and social situation.

That is why most of the 12 million Russians in Ukraine (and many in the Baltics) voted for independence. That is why Belarus voted for independence.

Another major factor contributing to the centrifugal flow of power was Yeltsin’s campaign against Gorbachev and the Communist Party. Once Yeltsin acquired a power base in the Russian Federation, he used all opportunities to build that base while weakening the center. The more he weakened the center, the more other republics gained as well.

After the Communist Party lost its grip, when the August coup collapsed, Yeltsin began to see the advantage in keeping a weak center for certain functions that Russia could not take over or that would estrange the other republics--above all, control of nuclear weapons. The weakened new union Gorbachev was seeking from September to December was acceptable to Yeltsin, but not to any Ukrainian candidate for the key Dec. 1 election. Ukrainian rejection of any “union"--a word President Gorbachev should have jettisoned--coupled with growing recognition of a need for economic cooperation, made possible the “commonwealth” agreement.

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Faced with a choice of estrangement from Ukraine or from Gorbachev, Yeltsin wisely opted to woo Ukraine. But Yeltsin, either from haste or spite, moved to dissolve the existing union without even consulting Gorbachev or considering the rather large loose ends--such as the control of the armed forces. Already paymaster of the armed forces and all central governmental bodies, Yeltsin believed the risk was small.

In the meantime, we all must wait and see. It is most difficult for Americans to be told that there are great risks to U.S. security in the unstable and unsettled Soviet disunion, and yet that there is little we can do but wait and keep in contact with all sides. Nonetheless, even before the political transformation of the former Soviet Union is complete, there is urgent need for economic assistance. As Secretary of State James A. Baker III said on Thursday, the United States can take a lead in that effort. In the longer run, there is much we and others in the West can do to help a peaceful economic and democratic development of the countries of the former Soviet Union.


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