ALTHOUGH Moscow is losing its ability to govern Russia, it is nevertheless trying to extend its control over neighboring states. Citing Russia's "vital interests" and "special responsibilities" Boris Yeltsin recently asked the world community to deputize Russia so it can start policing what used to be the Soviet Union. On Feb. 28, in a speech to the Civic Union (an ad-hoc coalition of former Communist Party apparatchiks and managers of state enterprises), the Russian president indicated that "the time ha s come for distinguished international organizations, including the UN, to grant Russia special powers of a guarantor of peace and stability in regions of the former USSR."
Mr. Yeltsin's appeal to legitimate a new Russian sphere of influence is unlikely to be repeated by a conservative successor, should he be ousted. The move would probably be taken unilaterally.
Months before Yeltsin's Civic Union address, Russian politicians and statesmen had begun stumping internationally for the sheriff's job, mainly on the platform of protecting the human rights of the 25 million ethnic Russians who, due to the break-up of the USSR into 15 independent states, have suddenly become minorities in foreign countries. Judging from the response of Western decisionmakers and opinion shapers they have succeeded in distorting the minority question in the former USSR by defining it as an exclusively Russian problem. This has dangerous implications not only for Russia's neighbors but also for the global community. Misleading figures
First of all, the figure of 25 million Russians living in diaspora is in itself misleading. This number may reflect the most recent Soviet census of 1989. But the census, in the opinion of many specialists, deliberately overstates the strength of the Russians to mitigate the demographic strength and growing restlessness among the USSR's non-Russian nationalities. Already by 1989 Russians were returning to Russia from the other republics by the thousands, and this trend accelerated visibly after the disin tegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Clearly, if another census were taken today there would be considerably fewer than 25 million people living outside of the Russian Federation who declare themselves Russian.
Surely there is an enormous Russian diaspora. Yet, it is not clear that Russians in other countries would welcome Moscow's intervention on their behalf. In Ukraine a majority of its 11 million ethnic Russians voted for Ukrainian independence in December 1991. Also, most of the Russian officers stationed in Ukraine opted to swear allegiance to Ukraine rather than return to an uncertain future in Russia. For many in the Russian diaspora, emotional and economic roots run deeper in non-Russian soil. Actually , in relative terms the Russian problem of diaspora is no larger than the problem of diaspora for any of the other former Soviet republics. The Russians living in diaspora account for about 17 percent of the total ethnic Russian population. This is about the same percentage of minorities living in other states that one finds among all the other 14 titular nationalities of the former Soviet republics.
Russia has the largest number of ethnic minorities. More than 27 million non-Russians reside within the Russian Federation. Put another way, almost 40 percent of the former Soviet Union's minorities live in Russia. Thus the issue is not only minorities living outside Russia, but those who live within its borders. What about non-Russians?
While Russia is making an international bid to protect minorities outside its borders, many of the minorities living in Russia are asserting their independence. Russia faces the prospect of disintegration. Addressing only the "25 million Russian minority" issue ignores the 27 million non-Russian minorities who live in Russia.
Russia's neighbors say Moscow is merely …