As the Soviet Monolith Shatters into Pieces the Central Government Grows Less Relevant and the USSR Seat on the United Nations Security Council Could Be Up for Grabs

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ON Nov. 19, Eduard A. Shevardnadze was reappointed as "Minister of External Relations of the USSR." Two days later, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin was greeted in Germany by Chancellor Helmut Kohl with the full protocol honors accorded to the head of a sovereign state.

On Nov. 27, American government officials announced that the United States would extend full diplomatic recognition to the Ukraine after its Dec. 1 referendum on independence. But two days later, George Bush indicated that he still hoped to maintain a close partnership with the Soviet central government of Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow. What's wrong with this picture?

Mr. Yeltsin, as his central role in the Chechen-Ingush secession crisis indicates, already wields more-effective power inside the former Soviet Union than Mr. Gorbachev. The impending international recognition of the Ukraine almost certainly dooms any hope of keeping a union together over the long term. As Yeltsin's predominance grows, he is unlikely to relinquish the conduct of the former Soviet Union's external relations to Gorbachev and Mr. Shevardnadze indefinitely. If the external world treats Yeltsin like the head of a sovereign state, he will soon start acting that way in the international arena.

One of the first places this may occur is in the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union's influence in the UN derives not from its rapidly vanishing international power, but from its formal position as one of five permanent Security Council members, with power to veto substantive UN activity.

In September, former Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin suggested that every Soviet republic could be admitted to the UN General Assembly, but that a single representative of a "Union of Sovereign States" should continue to exercise the USSR's permanent Security Council veto. Yet Article 4 of the UN Charter states that UN membership is accorded only to "states."

Before long, some important international issue will arrive on the Security Council agenda. Perhaps it will be the creation of an unprecedented UN peacekeeping operation inside a still-legally sovereign Yugoslavia - a sensitive subject for a still-legally sovereign USSR that may be going down a similar road.

Perhaps an ambitious despot in a region of less-than-vital interest to the West will launch a cross-border invasion, to test whether Operation Desert Storm was really about new world order or oil. Or perhaps the Ukraine, which was granted a "Potemkin UN seat" in order to get Stalin to sign on, will actually begin to exercise its membership by seeking UN mediation in its disputes with either the Russian or Soviet central governments.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin may be in complete agreement on all these issues about how to instruct Yulii Vorontsov, the permanent representative of the USSR to the UN. But maybe not.

What if Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, a young rising star, publicly challenges Shevardnadze over "the Soviet position" in the Security Council? And what if Yeltsin, irresistibly tempted by the opportunity to gain a formal voice in the affairs of the world, sends his own UN ambassador to New York, claiming that Mr. …