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

June 08, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIGA, Latvia — 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.

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