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PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEW SOVIET COMMONWEALTH : So Much Nationalism, So Much Ego : It’s hard to feel confident that rationality will prevail. But the West must help now or feed the growing chaos.

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The most positive thing that can be said for the new Commonwealth of Independent States--due to take the place of the Soviet Union at the beginning of 1992--is that at least it provides a possibility of preserving harmonious ties between Russia and Ukraine, the two most populous republics. One would have, however, to be an incorrigible optimist to regard that as a probability.

The Russian term that is being translated as “commonwealth” can also be translated as “community.” Yet Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s projected union treaty, in its post-coup version, was closer to the European Community--which many of the wiser heads in the Soviet Union saw as a model--than is the hastily announced commonwealth, which involves the breakup of existing coordinating structures before replacement ones have been thought through, never mind built. Impatient new elites (not least in Russia), anxious to get their hands on all the levers of power and to enjoy to the full their national and international prestige, have shown scant regard for legal niceties as they have moved with almost indecent haste to hustle Gorbachev and his team out of office.

Since, of late, that team has been overwhelmingly liberal by reputation--Eduard A. Shevardnadze as foreign minister, Vadim V. Bakatin as head of a sweepingly reorganized KGB and Alexander N. Yakovlev as chief adviser--the effort by the emerging elites to present the struggle for power as one between light and darkness, between progressive Russia and a reactionary center, has been mainly eyewash. It had some substance so long as people like Valentin S. Pavlov, the former prime minister, and Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the former chairman of the KGB, held high office, but as they await trial for their part in the putsch, their places have been taken by men of less authoritarian personality and more enlightened outlook.

Enormously difficult national and economic problems are likely to dog Yeltsin and the other presidents of the newly independent states just as (or even more than) they dogged Gorbachev. It is hard to be confident that common sense and economic rationality will be able to prevail over the egotism of ambitious politicians and the intensity of nationalist passions.

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It is more difficult than ever to generalize about the entire territory and peoples of the former Soviet Union. What one can say is that so far the Russian people have shown a remarkable patience and self-restraint. But in Moscow this week I found a new sharpness of comment and increasing disillusionment with all politicians (even Yeltsin, whose stock has declined since its August peak) which could provide fertile soil for the growth of a new authoritarianism. Levels of dissatisfaction are high not only among manual workers but in the technical intelligentsia--among graduate engineers and technicians. One of the main dividing lines has become that between those with access to foreign currency (as the ruble buys less and less) and those without. It is disturbing to find nostalgia for the Brezhnev era among people who were never members of the Communist Party but who say “then were was stability,” “there was predictability,” “you could feed your family.”

The divisions among those in the former Soviet Union who should have been united by their basic support for democratization and marketization have done nothing to help the country (or countries) out of economic and political crisis. Western help would already have been extended on a larger scale had Yeltsin and Gorbachev cooperated from the moment the coup was over and maintained a respectful alliance. In fact, old resentments rapidly came to the surface and there have been major divisions within Yeltsin’s own team--harsh criticism of the Russian government’s economic policy by Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi is only the latest example.

Without some visible economic improvement, it is all too likely that a search for scapegoats, whether individuals or ethnic groups, will take the place of constructive work both within the new individual states and in their interrelationship. The West rightly has deep misgivings about the way new elites in the Soviet Union are placing the imperatives of power above the rule of law and spirit of cooperation. But there is no alternative to helping all of those governments that are prepared to preserve and build upon political liberties (which were were first accorded Soviet citizens under Gorbachev) and to make into reality the transformation of the economic system, which has until now remained largely in the realm of ideas.

To do nothing or too little would be to invite turmoil on a broader and more dangerous scale than we have seen already in Yugoslavia, tragic enough though that is.

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