Before there was a Soviet empire there was Imperial Russia, which from the 16th through the 19th centuries expanded to absorb scores of diverse peoples from the Baltic to the North Pacific, from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. The Soviet Union’s collapse meant the disintegration of this empire inherited by the Bolsheviks from the czars. In its place emerged 15 sovereign states. But how much longer some of these states may be able to hold on to their independence and territorial integrity is problematic.
Already a number have found it expedient to again acknowledge Russia’s historical sphere of influence by acceding to renewed close economic and security ties with Moscow. Already Ukraine, the biggest and most important of them, has had to bend to Moscow’s will in a number of disputes. Now another state--Georgia--accuses at least some in Russia of supporting a local rebellion as part of a plot to reassert Russian control over the eastern shore of the Black Sea.
In Moscow the Foreign Ministry has denied Georgia President Eduard A. Shevardnadze’s allegation of official Russian involvement. Shevardnadze’s charge, though, was that some ultranationalists in the Russian armed forces had backed the rebellion by Georgia’s Abkhazian minority that this week led to the fall of Sukhumi, the capital of the Abkhazia autonomous region in northwestern Georgia. It was a personal humiliation for Shevardnadze, a man despised by members of the Russian old guard for his part in hastening the end of the Soviet Union.
American concern with the political confrontation that has been going on in Moscow between President Boris N. Yeltsin and recalcitrant parliamentarians has overshadowed events in faraway Georgia, but what has been happening there ought to be taken in Washington and the West as a warning signal to be heeded.
Many of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union harbor the potential for ethnic conflicts like those that threaten to dismember Georgia.
Such potential mini-wars could also prompt Russian intervention or support for rebels of the kind Shevardnadze charges has taken place in his country. Once involved, Russia might prove unwilling to become uninvolved. Certainly there remains a powerfully nationalistic segment of Russians who are eager to regain control over the territories they call the “near abroad.”
The United States is right to back Yeltsin in the current political crisis because he continues to represent the forces of change in Russia. But it’s not too soon for Washington and its allies also to make it clear that their support doesn’t extend to any reassertion of Russia’s imperial grip over lands and peoples of the former empire that are plainly eager to hold on to their hard-won independence.