Nationality Issue Threatens to Splinter Russia

Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, recently returned from Moscow, where he did research in the Russian archives.

The power struggle in Moscow between Boris N. Yeltsin and the Congress of People's Deputies obscures an equally important devel opment that may have equally mo mentous consequences. The Russian Federation is in danger of splitting apart. Indeed, Yeltsin's fear of such a split was a central reason why he chose to challenge the Congress when he did.

Many people assume that, with the secession of the non-Russian republics from the old Soviet Union during and after the collapse of communism, nationality and regional problems ceased to be a strong force in Russian politics. Unfortunately, owing to the legacy of Russian imperial history, this is not the case. Questions of nationality and of regional autonomy are certain to become ever more important in the near future, even more so should the current political battle in Moscow not produce a clear victor.

Russia's nationality problem stems from the fact that it became an empire before becoming a nation in the modern sense. Russia did not develop a true nationalism until the end of the 18th or the beginning of the 19th centuries. By that time, however, the Russian empire already stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific, and from the Arctic Circle to China and Persia. Contained within this vast area were as many as 100 major and minor nationalities speaking scores of languages and dialects.

Unlike other European imperial powers, Russia's tragedy was that its empire was contiguous to the mother country. Britain's withdrawal from its dominion was comparatively easy because, psychologically as well as physically, its imperial possessions were, for the most part, distant across the seas. Northern Ireland is an instructive exception.

For Russians, it has always been unclear where Russia proper ends and the empire begins. Both czars and commissars did what they could to obscure this dividing line by settling their possessions with presumably more reliable ethnic Russians. They hoped this would consolidate their control. Now, as Russian political authority recedes, this dormant problem has burst out in force.

Moscow faces a threefold dilemma. First, there is the question of ethnic Russians who suddenly found themselves removed from Moscow's political control--and protection--as the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union seceded one after another. Second, there is the problem of political instability and ethnic strife in these successor states, which sprang up along Russia's border during 1991-92. Finally, the Russian Federation is itself far from immune to ethnic and regional tensions.

The first of these problems is, in the long term, potentially the most explosive. Twenty-five million Russians, a group roughly equal to the population of Canada, now live in newly created states along the Russian Federation's borders. To date, this has led to surprisingly few serious conflicts. These ethnic Russians have so far shown few signs of restiveness under their new governments. Indeed, in several areas--the Crimean Peninsula and the Baltic States--majorities of resident Russians have supported secession from Moscow's control. Yeltsin's moderation has been a factor of inestimable value in preventing ethnic resentment from flaring into conflict. He took a startlingly mild approach toward dealing with Ukranians over who controls the Crimean Peninsula, which required him to divide the Soviet Black Sea fleet between Moscow and the newly independent government in Kiev. He has also opted for compromise solutions in every other instance, from questions of nuclear arms to currency.

This moderation might not last forever. Those shouting most loudly for Yeltsin's political head, such as the ultranationalist Sergei Baburin, have attacked the president for supposedly selling out the interests of ethnic Russians in the successor states. Should they succeed in gaining power, Yeltsin's nationalist enemies would be certain to launch crusades in defense of their ethnic kin--whether asked to do so by the Russians concerned or not. They would be doubly tempted to do so as compensation for the economic crisis that would inevitably worsen should they reverse market reforms, which they have pledged to do. The leaders of the non-Russian successor states are well aware of the importance of Yeltsin's moderation as a counterweight to these nationalist forces, as the supportive comments of Eduard A. Shevardnadze, formerly Mikhail S. Gorbachev's foreign minister and now president of Georgia, have shown.

Of more immediate concern than ethnic Russians "abroad" is the instability within the newly independent republics. At the moment, this is most acute in the Transcaucasus, where fighting rages between Armenians and Azeris, causing large-scale casualties and economic collapse akin to the situation in Bosnia.

Like an amoeba that, when chopped in two, produces two, smaller amoebas, the collapse of the Soviet empire has led to the creation of new mini-empires. This is the clearest in Georgia, where the dominant Georgians face secessionists among minority nationalities, most importantly the Ossetians and Abkhazians.

Russians have inevitably become involved in these struggles. Units of the old Soviet Army are still stationed in and around Georgia and the other newly independent states; owing to the housing and economic crises back in Russia, they have not been able to return home. Yeltsin has ordered the Russian military not to become involved in local ethnic strife. But many former Soviet military commanders stationed in these regions yearn to destablize the new regimes in hopes of reconstituting the old Soviet Union, and so they have ignored Yeltsin's orders and fueled the fires of nationalist discord. It is important to note that such disobedience continues a longstanding Russian tradition; many of Russia's imperial territories first fell under Russian control when local army officers seized them, often in defiance of czarist orders.

Russia's most murky nationalist, and regionalist, problem lies within the Russian Federation itself. As Yeltsin and the Congress fight to determine where the center of political gravity lies, regions within the vast Russian state have begun to pull away from Moscow's control. This, too, follows well-established Russian tradition. For 400 years, Russia has been governed by a strongly centralized state; but in times of crisis and political collapse, regional bosses have come to the forefront. Ever since Yeltsin announced his decision to rule through decree and hold a referendum on April 25, the Russian nightly news has given prominence to declarations of support by regional and city authorities throughout Russia. Yeltsin's supporters in the media know that regional bosses helped to engineer Nikita S. Khrushchev's ouster, and their defection from Gorbachev doomed any chance for his political comeback after the failed coup of August, 1991.

As political power in Moscow remains uncertain, non-Russian national groups within the Russian Federation have also begun to agitate for greater independence. Ethnic groups such as the Bashkirs and the Yakuts, whose cultures were ruthlessly controlled or suppressed under the Soviets and czars, have now begun to demand greater control over their resources and local governments. They also wish to determine how their national histories are written and taught. Although their demands are now moderate, they will certainly increase with time, as long as Moscow's authority remains uncertain. Yeltsin is deeply concerned by the growth of these centrifugal forces, thus his warnings about the dangers of Russian disintegration.

The secession of the major non-Russian republics aided the establishment of democracy in Russia. No real democracy was possible there as long as roughly half the population remained disaffected from Moscow's rule. The current ethnic and regional crises, however, are quite different: They hamper the consolidation of democratic rule by threatening to make Russia ungovernable, economically unstable and prone to violence that will only play into the hands of the nationalist enemies of democracy.

Unfortunately, the outside world can do little in the short term to help settle this crisis. The surest step toward resolution would be the establishment of clear political authority in Moscow. At present, it appears as though Yeltsin has checkmated his opponents in the Congress and is set to gain a renewed mandate from the Russian people. But Yeltsin's proposed referendum is still almost a month away, and that is a dangerously long time in a revolutionary situation. It gives one pause to recall that Russia's last reasonably democratic government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917 as it prepared to hold national elections.

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