The Soviet Crackup the Separatist Impulse and Process Seem Inexorable, but Independence Movements Need Not Threaten the Security of Mother Russia

By Walter C. Clemens Jr. Walter C. Clemens Jr. teaches at Boston University and is an associate Center. He is the of "Baltic Independence and Russian Empire" and "Can Russia Change?" . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 30, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Soviet Crackup the Separatist Impulse and Process Seem Inexorable, but Independence Movements Need Not Threaten the Security of Mother Russia


Walter C. Clemens Jr. Walter C. Clemens Jr. teaches at Boston University and is an associate Center. He is the of "Baltic Independence and Russian Empire" and "Can Russia Change?" ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE world's last major empire - the Soviet Union - is collapsing. Independent statehood will probably become a reality for the Baltic republics in the next one to three years and for most other republics by the year 2000. It is doubtful, however, that any of the nationalities within the Russian and other union republics will achieve independence.

Events since the late 1980s suggest that every national grouping within the Soviet Union will follow the model set in the Baltics, unless circumstances - usually perceived geographical limitations - intervene.

The following model prescribes a process of national self-assertion spanning at least 15 stages: (1) National awakening, sparked by environmental or other challenges to the nation's well-being; (2) Formation of a popular front (usually including some former communist leaders) with demands for national "sovereignty"; (3) Organization of political movements or parties demanding independence; (4) Atrophy if former Communist Party members, now popular-front and independence candidates, prevail in elections; (5) Efforts by local communists to shed their past and gain a new identity; (6) Cultural self-assertion - moves to restore local language, culture, and religion; (7) Claims to own the nation's natural resources; (8) Disclaimer of any duty for nationals to serve in all-union military institutions; (9) Awareness that national minorities within the republic have their own claims; (10) Efforts to dislodge the hegemony of all-union ministries and start a market economy; (11) A "war of laws" as local legislatures strive to make their laws superior to the USSR constitution; (12) Defiance of gnarled carrots proffered and spiked sticks wielded by the center; (13) Elaboration of ties with other nations of the Soviet Union; (14) Efforts to build transnational and commercial ties beyond Soviet borders with individuals, firms, and countries; (15) The quest for recognition as an independent state by international organizations and other states.

This forecast is rooted in two key assumptions. First, psychic scars suffered by former captive nations make it difficult to rebuild the union or even a loose federation. Second, the USSR is too large and too culturally diverse to be united in more than a loose "commonwealth." Gorbachev fears to think of other alternatives, but Washington must do so.

The liberation process depends upon the same three variables that shape every empire: the state of the core, the peripheral units, and relations between and among them, plus the willingness of outside actors to support the liberation process.

THE United States and other Western nations can shape the process in important ways. First, they can assert their preference for democratic government including national self-determination, with protection for ethnic minorities. …

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