Case Study: Russians : Becoming Strangers in Their Homeland : Millions of Russians are now unwanted minorities in newly independent states, an explosive situation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was born and raised in Latvia, has a Latvian wife, two Latvian children and a job as a top drug enforcement agent in the Latvian police force.

But Alexander P. Kostenko, an ethnic Russian in one of the most anti-Russian outposts of the former Soviet empire, is not likely to be granted Latvian citizenship anytime soon.

In what Russians contend is a common bureaucratic ploy to deprive them of any shot at citizenship, Latvian authorities ignored Kostenko's Riga birth certificate and indicated on his documents that he has been a resident only since Latvian independence in 1991.

Ethnic hostilities have already scorched a dozen lands on the periphery of the former Soviet Union, claiming at least 25,000 lives since 1988 and creating several million refugees. But experts say the fate of about 25 million ethnic Russians who now find themselves living outside the borders of Russia, in the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, could become the most explosive problem of all. One in every six Russians is now living outside the Russian Federation.

These 25 million people--roughly equal to the entire population of Canada--represent 10% or more of the population in eight of the former republics.

In some new nations, they have quickly devolved from privileged citizens of a superpower to unwanted and embittered minorities.

But the prospect that the Russian army could be drawn into nationalist conflicts in support of local populations of ethnic Russians--as happened in Moldova last year--sends shudders from the Baltics to Central Asia.

"This is an issue that has enormous potential for disaster. . . , " said Ronald Grigor Suny, a nationalities expert at the University of Michigan. "It's like a time bomb ticking."

The fate of these diaspora Russians is as varied--and as unpredictable--as the crazy-quilt ethnic map of their former empire.

In Tajikistan, for example, 104,500 ethnic Russians along with nearly 100,000 other people have reportedly fled a raging civil war that is estimated to have left at least 20,000 people dead. Russians are not involved in the bloody power struggle between former Communists and Islamic guerrillas. But refugees said that noncombatants of all ethnic groups have been slaughtered on the streets.

Some ethnic Russians who have fled Tajikistan for Mother Russia say they have received little help--and sometimes a cold shoulder.

"It turns out nobody wants us," one said.

In Latvia, nearly 40% of residents, mostly ethnic Russians like Kostenko, were not eligible to vote last weekend in the first elections since independence in August, 1991. Though there has been no violence, and human rights inspection teams have found no overt abuses, ethnic Russians claim a pattern of discrimination against them.

"I understand not giving citizenship to (former Soviet) army or KGB officers, but to treat everyone this way is not right," Kostenko said.

Ethnic Latvians, who are only 52% of the population, fear they will once again lose control of their homeland if they give instant citizenship to all Slavic immigrants.

Latvians and Estonians also say that it is those Russians who behave most like "occupiers"--the ones who haven't bothered to learn the language of the country where they wish to become citizens--who complain most of discrimination.

In eastern Moldova, the ethnic Russian population, fearing their neighbors would try to reunite with Romania, launched a preemptive strike. They proclaimed the breakaway "Transdneister Republic" and set up a puppet government that was openly backed by the Russian 14th Army. About 500 people died in the ensuing fighting.

Russian-dominated enclaves in northern Kazakhstan and in the Crimea are quiet now, but any attempt by the ethnic Russians in either area to rejoin Russia could turn bloody.

Though Moscow has become more active of late in trying to mediate local conflicts, President Boris N. Yeltsin has also threatened military intervention if necessary to protect local Russian populations. Last fall, Yeltsin linked withdrawal of Russian troops in the Baltics to protection of human rights of Russian-speakers there.

To some of the peoples who suffered from the capricious and sometimes malicious Soviet nationalities policy, the Russian "colonists" are only getting their comeuppance.

They point to the sins of Josef Stalin, who, as a Caucasian himself, understood the stubborn and potentially explosive nature of ethnic allegiance and squashed nationalism wherever he found it.

As Lenin's commissar of nationalities and then as a dictator, Stalin redrew borders, liquidated local ethnic elites and ordered the deportations of entire peoples, including Tatars, Chechens, Kalmyks and Russian Germans.

In some areas, including the Baltics, he neutralized nationalism by diluting the native population with supposedly loyal Slavs.

Fifty years of intermarriage and state-sponsored migration have further muddled borders that were arbitrary to begin with. Some people say that Stalin booby-trapped his empire, making it almost impossible to take apart.

"You cannot answer the question, 'Whose land is that?' It's a dead end," said historian Constantine D. Pleshakov of the U.S.A.-Canada Institute in Moscow.

"Of course Stalin committed a crime against humanity," he said. "That goes without saying. But why should others suffer for Stalin's crimes?"

While they do not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union, many Russians are saddened by the discrediting of the Soviet ideals of a supranationalist state based on racial and ethnic equality.

Ironically, the new Russia's track record on ethnic issues beats that of many of the republics. Russian Federation citizenship is available to any former citizen of the U.S.S.R. who claims it, said Sergei V. Solntsev, spokesman for the Russian Federal Migration Service.

Bitter Russians say that if they subjected non-ethnic Russian residents to the treatment Russians have faced in some former republics, they would be excoriated by the world community.

Sergei B. Stankevich, who as a leader of the pro-democracy movement backed Baltic independence, now charges Latvia and Estonia with legalizing discrimination against Russians.

"Democratic Russia is not responsible for the imperial sins of the former Union," Stankevich told the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. "And to take revenge for the bitter past on common people means to become like the regimes of Hitler or Stalin, who advocated the principle of collective guilt. . . .

"These are people who lived their lives, moved to some other place, married, had children, never even guessing that one fine day they would find themselves foreigners in their own flats. . . ," Stankevich said. "It's apartheid."

Last month, the Russian authorities began granting refugee status to those leaving Estonia and Latvia due to the two Baltic nations' restrictive citizenship policies.

But the prospects of those who return to a Russia in economic chaos are less than rosy.

Officially, 1.5 million refugees from all over the former Soviet empire have registered with the Russian government since 1989, Solntsev said. The flow is speeding up, with an average of 1,000 to 2,000 new refugees arriving each month. Officials fear Russia may have to accept 6 million refugees from the troubled former republics in the next few years.

The problem is worst in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where refugees are officially not permitted to resettle due to a perennial housing crunch. The cities are nonetheless jammed with illegal refugees of every description. Repatriating Russians join Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Ingushetis, Ossetians and even Kurds and Somalis.

The least fortunate are reduced to sleeping in train stations, squatting in attics, paying off mobsters for protection and bribing local officials to enroll their children in school without the proper residence permits.

Even refugees who resettle in rural areas can find it tough going.

"We were shocked to be called 'foreigners' in Russia," said Anatoly V. Balashov, who is working on a plan to resettle 22,500 Russian refugees from Tajikistan in Borisoglebsk, a city of 75,000 in southern Russia. "Our historic roots are here."

Balashov said some local officials became hostile when they learned that about 15% of the refugees are Tajiks, Tatars, Armenians, Jews and others who have intermarried with the Russians. He said the refugees were asked not to bring "the blacks"--a derogatory term used by Russians to describe darker-complexioned southern peoples.

" 'We are not going to let you into Russia,' they say openly. . . ," Balashov related. "They told it right to our face."

And though every refugee is legally entitled to a small sum to help resettle, none of Balashov's group has yet collected the money.

The supreme irony, says Balashov, is that the vast majority of Russians were originally sent from Russia to the other republics involuntarily.

"Some were exiled to Tajikistan in the Stalin era, together with their relatives," he said. "Some were sent to guard these relatives. Some were building housing for those who were guarding the relatives, and so on."

"The Tajiks are right to say they want to do everything themselves, revive their culture and mother tongue," Balashov added. "It is their country. . . . We are leaving for Russia."

BACKGROUND

Early Bolshevism held that the very institution of nations would be swept away by an internationalist workers' state. Soviet founding father Vladimir I. Lenin believed that "by granting rights to nations and by giving them political and cultural autonomy, he could speed the rise of the new socialist man who would be capable of ridding himself of national prejudices," writes French scholar Helene C. D'Encausse. But as it became clear that the Soviet Union would need strong, defensible borders, Lenin realized the danger that nationalism posed. So, he arranged to give only titular autonomy to the 15 national republics but center all real power in Moscow. Later, Stalin began the policy of "Russification," imposing Russian as the lingua franca and as the language of state ideology, creating deep resentment. As a result, Soviet policies that aimed to transcend nationalism--or if not, to suppress it--have created exactly the caldron of ethnic animosity that communism was supposed to cure.

Russians Abroad

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, roughly one in six Russians now finds himself or herself living in a foreign country.

Ethnic Russians in Russian Federation: 82.6%

In other former Soviet Republics: 17.4%

*

Ethnic Russians compared with the major national ethnic groups other former Soviet republics*:

- Kazakhstan (Kazakhs)

Russians: 6.2 million (38%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 6.5 million (40%)

*

- Latvia (Latvians)

Russians: 907,000 (34%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 1.4 million (52%)

*

- Estonia (Estonians)

Russians: 470,000 (30%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 954,000 (61%)

*

- Ukraine (Ukrainians)

Russians: 11.3 million (22%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 37.4 million (73%)

*

- Kyrgyzstan (Kyrgyz)

Russians: 917,000 (22%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 2.2 million (52%)

*

- Moldova (Moldovans)

Russians: 562,000 (13%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 2.8 million (65%)

*

- Belarus (Belarussians)

Russians: 1.3 million (13%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 7.9 million (78%)

*

- Turkmenistan (Turkmen)

Russians: 334,000 (10%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 2.5 million (72%)

*

- Lithuania (Lithuanians)

Russians: 344,000 (9%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 2,997,000 (81%)

*

- Uzbekistan (Uzbeks)

Russians: 1.6 million (8%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 14.1 million (71%)

*

-- Tajikistan (Tajiks)

Russians 388,000 (7%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 3.2 million (62%)

*

- Azerbaijan (Azerbaijanis)

Russians: 392,000 (6%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 5.8 million (83%)

*

- Georgia (Georgians)

Russians: 341,000 (6%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 3.8 million (69%)

*

- Armenia (Armenians)

Russian: 52,000 (2%)

Major Natl. Ethnic Group: 3.1 million (93%)

* May not add up to 100% due to presence of other ethnic groups Sources: Soviet Census, 1989; U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Compiled by Times Moscow Bureau reporter Andrei Ostroukh and researcher Beth Knobel

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