YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Nationality Issue Threatens to Splinter Russia

March 28, 1993|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, recently returned from Moscow, where he did research in the Russian archives.

ENS, OHIO — 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.

Los Angeles Times Articles