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National Agenda : When the Lights Go Out at the Kremlin : * There are several scenarios, none good, for the former union.


MOSCOW — It was James A. Baker III, the U.S. secretary of state, who gave voice to the nightmare scenario that, as of this week, seems suddenly and horrifyingly plausible.

The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has reached critical mass, Baker warned. And what may result is something like the present-day ethnic warfare in Yugoslavia--with thousands of nuclear weapons tossed in for good measure.

Allow his country to break up along ethnic fault lines, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev cautioned, and the Yugoslav conflict will look like a "simple joke" in comparison.

Such dire, Cassandra-like predictions won immediate converts both here and in the West. For months now, Russians have uneasily watched TV reports of the killings and brutal military operations in Yugoslavia--whose name means "the land of the southern Slavs"--feeling that they might be witnessing a dress rehearsal for their own country's apocalyptic future.

For more than three years, Gorbachev and his team, some of the brightest minds in the Soviet Union, struggled and ultimately failed to resolve the murderous feud waged by the Armenians and the Azeris, two neighboring Transcaucasian peoples.

"It will always be with us," a despondent executive of the official Tass news agency once confided. "It has become our Ulster."

But since then, other "Ulsters" have flared across the former Soviet Union in out-of-the-way places with exotic, little-known names like Osh or Ossetia. And all this has happened when there is still an armature of centralized power, a unified Soviet armed forces and a Ministry of the Interior. What will happen when all this vanishes?

"One cannot be too alarmist about this," Simon Lunn, the deputy secretary general of the North Atlantic Assembly, told the Reuters news agency Monday in Brussels. "No one in the West or in the Soviet Union seems to know how to prevent this free fall."

The old Cold War standoff, based on nuclear strategy known as "MAD"--Mutual Assured Destruction--never seemed more stable or attractive than it does now. A few days ago, a senior U.S. government specialist on the Soviet Union, musing out loud over a plateful of smoked fish at a dimly lit Soviet restaurant, said American officials, by and large, had badly erred in overestimating the Soviet system's capacity for reform.

Once political and economic change became irreversible, the gigantic country itself, the result of centuries of relentless expansion by the Russian center, began to collapse upon itself, the specialist said.

Optimistic ideas of a "reformed Soviet Union," he said, were nothing but a paradox. The country, historically speaking, existed due to tyranny and terror. Change doomed it.

Such, too, is now the argument of embittered Soviet conservatives. For them, the accord reached last weekend by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, dissolving the Soviet Union in favor of a "Commonwealth of Independent States," is a reversal of centuries of centralization and consolidation that will unleash vastly destructive forces.

"One thing can be said with certainty now--a lot of explosives have been planted under the country's foundation. . . . To mention just one thing, a chasm has been opened between the Slavic and the Muslim republics," Sergei N. Baburin, the leader of the conservative faction in the Soviet national legislature, commented. "This split is going to play a highly damaging, downright murderous role in the near future.

"Another thing--the very idea of a federative state, with a tight alliance between its constituent parts, has now been destroyed," Baburin said. "We can now talk about the final dismantling of the Soviet Union as an entity under international law. This is an entirely new historical reality."

Keenly conscious of the historical parallels with Yugoslavia, a country that only appeared on the map of Europe after World War I, the advocates of a radical realignment of power assert that it was the Soviet Union, and the Russian empire that antedated it, that was the artificial "historical reality."

The source of the instability, they maintain, comes from trying to prolong an unnatural creation.

"For the world community, a civilized community of free states which guarantee peace and human rights must take the place of the irresponsible union," the Russian foreign minister, Andrei V. Kozyrev, told the German newspaper Bild Zeitung.

For Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk and Belarus Parliament chairman Stanislav Shushkevich, scrapping the centralized machinery of the Soviet Union and granting the republics genuine independence is the only way left out of the country's multifaceted crisis.

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