Citizens of the former Soviet Union hardly had time to congratulate one another last week on their victory over the military-KGB-Communist Party putsch when a new nightmare peeked over the horizon.
In short order:
* Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin cautioned republics seeking independence that they would first have to settle border claims with the Russian Federation, the 800-pound gorilla of the crumbling Soviet empire.
* Nursultan Nazarbayev, the formidable reformist president of Kazakhstan, the second largest Soviet republic, replied publicly that if Russia claimed any Kazakh territory, it would be risking war.
* Oleg Rumyantsev, founder of the Russian Social-Democratic Party, until now considered a wunderkind of democratic reform, told the Christian Science Monitor: "If we are provoked toward civil war by irresponsible leaders of the republics, then we will respond from a position of force and self-confidence."
* Mr. Nazarbayev demanded that a Russian delegation visit Alma-Ata, the Kazakh capital, for emergency consultations to defuse the conflict. "Special danger lies in the fact that Kazakhstan is a nuclear republic," he said in a message to Mr. Yeltsin, just in case the Russian president was missing the point.
By week's end, the two republics had defused the crisis for the time being by agreeing to honor their existing borders. But there is a warning for the world in the exchange of unpleasantries: For a few days, the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations had been talking seriously about the possibility of going to war over territory.
The failure of the Soviet coup has swept aside the huge, rotten bureaucracy that had blocked and braked reform for years. It unquestionably has accelerated progress toward a market economy. It has exorcised the threat of revanche that had for so long made would-be entrepreneurs and private farmers hesitate to risk getting started. It has guaranteed the Baltic republics, among others, the independence they have sought so long.
But like other aspects of the New World Order, the final tumbling of Soviet totalitarianism is bringing some unpleasant surprises as well.
Die-hard Soviet Communists, if there still are any, and if they dared speak out loud, might be inclined to say they told us so. They always said Marxist internationalism was the only bulwark against the nasty chaos of ethnic rivalries.
"The successful solution of the national question in the U.S.S.R. is based on the fact that the Party has always conducted a determined struggle both with great-power chauvinism and with local nationalism, whatever forms these might take," the party's theoretical journal, Kommunist, explained back in 1958.
Now, at last, the Party's over. In between thinking up a new name for their profession, more than a few Sovietologists and Kremlinogists are scanning the ruins of communism for -- well, "great-power chauvinism and local nationalism."
Will Russia trade in its new-found democratic clothing for the musty uniform of czarist-style imperialism? Some non-Russians are worried about the way Mr. Yeltsin is throwing Russia's weight around. Will fanatical devotion to the rediscovered nation -- not just the ones in the news now, but Karakalpak or Bashkiria or Chuvashia or Ingushia or Udmurtia or any of another hundred tongue-twisters -- push aside common sense about trade and economic rebuilding? Much evidence says yes.
A long list of potential ethnic and border conflicts is waiting in the wings, and resolving them peacefully will test the statesmanship of new leaders such as Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Nazarbayev and the Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, whose three republics have the Soviet Union's strategic nuclear weapons.
The natural tensions caused by ethnic tangles and murky border histories are exacerbated by economic misery, and this year's harvest seems in particular danger. Inter-republican conflict, in turn, will tempt leaders to raise high the trade barriers and curb or ban exports. But in the super-centralized economy that is a legacy of Stalinism, a single factory often is the exclusive source of a product for the entire sprawling union, and a little anarchy goes a long way in crippling production.
Take, as one example of the potential for trouble, the Kazakhstan question. There are nearly as many ethnic Russians as ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, a huge, varied land of forest, steppe and desert stretching to the south of Russia between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. Many of the Russians live in the north of the republic, along the Russian border.
A year ago, publishing in the Soviet press his concept of a reorganized Russia, the exiled Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn blithely proposed lopping off the northern part of .. Kazakhstan and tacking it onto Russia. The Kazakh response was fierce.
The Kazakh people had long suffered at the hands of Moscow, experiencing what Soviet nationalities expert Paul B. Henze calls "near-genocide" during Stalin's forced collectivization in the 1930s; seeing mass in-migration of deported nationalities and of Russian and Ukrainian farmers; and serving as the Soviet army's testing ground for nuclear weapons, at Semipalatinsk.
"Kazakhstan's always been a dumping ground and experimental area," says Mr. Henze, of the Rand Corporation. Resentful Kazakhs never forget it. On Thursday, Mr. Nazarbayev issued a decree closing the Semipalatinsk testing range.
Kazakh-Russian relations flared in Alma-Ata in December, 1986, in the first major ethnic rioting of the Gorbachev era. Mikhail Gorbachev had removed the republic's corrupt party leader, Dinmukhamed Kunaev. No one would have minded, except that he replaced him with an ethnic Russian who had never even worked in Kazakhstan, Gennady Kolbin. The clumsy move touched off several days of disturbances that were brutally suppressed.
Naturally, Mr. Yeltsin's warning about borders touched a nerve. Though neither leader has been inclined to chauvinism, both Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Nazarbayev may be tempted to play the nationalist card, winning points by portraying themselves as defenders of their people. And if they resist that temptation, there are more demagogic, less responsible leaders who may step in to stir the brewing conflict, including former loyal Communists eager to win new public standing as nationalists.
Mr. Yeltsin, who has so far won popularity with simple courage, may soon find his armor tarnished by no-win inter-republican disputes. Although Russia and Kazakhstan signed an agreement Friday to honor current borders, that pledge may not settle matters, because it cannot cool popular emotions. If the Russians in Kazakhstan demand unification with Russia, Mr. Yeltsin can say no -- and risk being accused of betraying the nation. Or he can say yes -- and risk serious conflict with Kazakhstan.
Multiply that potential catastrophe by a dozen or so, and the Soviet Union begins to look, in a memorable image Mr. Gorbachev once used, knee-deep in gasoline.
Mr. Yeltsin's aides say his border concerns include not only northern Kazakhstan but heavily Russian parts of the Ukraine, such as the mountains and beaches of the Crimea and the coal fields of the Donbass. But if he lays claim to them, he will face a fight at least as fierce as that offered by Kazakhstan.
Byelorussia has in the past said that if Lithuania achieves independence, it will demand a slice of Lithuanian territory populated by ethnic Byelorussians -- and on and on.
Moldova is likely to seek union with Romania, whose population is ethnically identical. But to do so it must defeat angry opposition from Russian and Gagauz minorities that last year attempted unilaterally to secede from the little Western republic. Moldavian police pursued the Russians' leader, Igor Smirnov, all the way to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, to arrest him on Thursday. On Friday, ethnic Russians in Moldova threatened to shut down a major gas pipeline, cut off electricity and block roads unless Mr. Smirnov were freed.
The Caucasus and Transcaucasia, whose mountain peoples have a centuries-old history of feuding, is a nest of potential troubles. The long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict there shows that the longer the fighting goes on, the harder it becomes to stop.
Central Asia, where poverty, overcrowding, and competition for water make ethnic relations worse, has already seen several large-scale ethnic clashes. Some ethnologists fear that Uzbek-Tadzhik conflict could brew in an ethnically Tadzhik area that was arbitrarily tacked on to Uzbekistan by Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin in order to give Uzbekistan an international border -- a requirement for a full-fledged Soviet republic.
Mr. Henze, of the Rand Corporation, who has studied Soviet nationalities for 40 years, says he is optimistic that conflict will not get out of hand.
"The fact that there have been a number of nasty clashes over the past three or four years is a warning. None of those clashes has solved anything," Mr. Henze said. "I think if people think about it, they'll realize what a mess it can become. I give these people considerable credit for good sense."
A darker conclusion may be drawn from a novella, The Defector, written in 1988 by a prophetic Russian writer named Alexander Kabakov. It draws a compelling, grim portrait of violence and chaos in Moscow after a coup, the collapse of the Communist zTC Party and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kabakov's invented political groups -- the Social Fundamentalists of Turkestan, the Christian-Democratic Party of Transcaucasia, the Left Communists of Siberia, the Constitutional Party of Unified Bukhara and Samarkand Emirates were meant to sound outlandish in 1988. They no longer do.
If Mr. Kabakov's anti-utopia is still considerably more bleak than the current scene, he can tell the reader to be patient. He chose to set his book in 1992.
Scott Shane was The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1988 until July of this year.