WASHINGTON — As Secretary of State James A. Baker III travels the republics of what was once the Soviet Union this week and as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin jets from Moscow to Rome to the Central Asian city of Alma Ata this weekend, one question is certain to dominate their conversations: Just what is a commonwealth?
Even though Yeltsin was one of those leaders who 10 days ago proclaimed a new Commonwealth of Independent States as successor to the Soviet empire, however, neither he nor Baker is likely to have a satisfactory answer.
For the fact is that neither Western political theory nor Soviet practice provide much guidance to the citizens of the former Soviet republics or to anxious outside observers who are trying to puzzle out just what form of government it is that is supposed to be replacing the Kremlin's sway over one-sixth of the globe.
The English term commonwealth is almost completely meaningless--a catch-all word that embraces everything from the loose affiliation among Britain and its former colonies to the American states of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, both of which are commonwealths in their formal titles.
The Russian word, sodruzhestvo , is equally vague. Derived from the word droog, meaning friend, its literal meaning is co-friendship. Russians use the word for the British Commonwealth, but also for more general concepts such as international cooperation or community.
"It doesn't mean anything yet," says University of Michigan historian Ronald Suny. "They're going to have to give it meaning."
Doing so will require answering questions from the symbolic--will the new commonwealth have its own flag, and if so, what will it look like? How about the Olympic team? A national anthem? A central president?--to such crucial substantive matters as who controls the military and who gets to print money.
Along the way, the new leadership will also have to resolve matters such as who gets the Soviet Union's permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council? Who controls the diplomatic corps? And how many republics will have to destroy how many weapons to meet the obligations the former Soviet Union took on in international arms control treaties? Answering each of those questions will take time, warned Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze. "It is not the kind of process that needs two days of sittings and consultations and coming up with a statement or draft agreement. It is a most complex issue," Shevardnadze said.
But time is one thing the founders of the new order may not have. For if answers remain unknown, the questions they must grapple with are clear and increasingly pressing. The overriding question, says Gabriel Schoenfeld of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the most basic one: power. "Each of the republics has to grapple with how much to delegate to the center."
In the British Commonwealth, for example, the center has no power at all. The Commonwealth serves mostly as a periodic forum for discussion and intermittent cooperation, with no authority to regulate actions of its members.
By contrast, the 12-nation European Community, another form of commonwealth, started out a generation ago with power to regulate each of its members' policies on customs and tariffs. Ever since, the community's central institutions have slowly gained more clout, and by the end of the decade, EC members now plan to delegate to the center broad authority over their economies, foreign policy and defense.
For the Soviets, the question of the power of the center versus the power of the republics has been at the heart of politics for more than a year. In the Baltics, for example, opposition to the center is so strong that all three former republics--Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia--have made clear they have no interest in joining the new commonwealth on any terms. The southern republic of Georgia and the western republic of Moldova may head in that same direction.
In Ukraine, which voted for independence earlier this year, resentment of central authority is also powerful. Ukrainian insistence on minimizing the central power of Moscow led to the decision to put the headquarters of the new commonwealth in the Belarussian city of Minsk, Yeltsin told the Russian Parliament last week. "Moscow should no longer pull the same weight. That is something Kiev insists on," he said.
Any grants of significant power to the new commonwealth could generate strong internal opposition to the government of Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk.
By contrast, leaders in several of the Central Asian republics, whose poor and underdeveloped economies are dependent on trade with Russia and Ukraine, have argued in favor of retaining some sort of centralized authority.