Disunion, Reunion So What's So Wrong With a New Commonwealth Replacing the Soviet Union?

Unbreakable union of free republics,

United for the ages by Great Russia!


Hail the great, mighty Soviet Union

Created by the peoples' will!


Glory to the fatherland, our free fatherland!

Friendship of the peoples is a reliable bulwark!

The Party of Lenin, strength of the people,

Is leading us to the triumph of Communism!

-- National anthem of the Soviet Union (1917-1991 R.I.P.)

After 74 years, the grand strains of the Soviet national anthem resound only with irony. The unbreakable union has broken up. The Party of Lenin is banned. The friendship of the peoples has proven not so reliable. And hardly anybody anymore wants to be led to the triumph of Communism.

The great, mighty Soviet Union is dead. But maybe -- just mayb -- a new union of truly free republics has just been born.

You wouldn't have guessed it from some of the doomsday talk i both East and West. After the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus last week unveiled their December Surprise, a new Commonwealth of Independent States, two men sounded somber warnings about the demise of the Soviet Union, both invoking the harrowing prospect of a nuclear Yugoslavia.


One was Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who denounced the pact Monday as "illegal and dangerous." The other was CIA Director Robert M. Gates, who warned Tuesday of "the most significant disorder in the former Soviet Union since the Bolsheviks consolidated power."

But wait a minute. Wasn't this new Commonwealth of Independent States, hatched in a day of negotiations at a Byelarussian hunting lodge, awfully like the new, looser union that Mr. Gorbachev supposedly was seeking? And wasn't this pact on military and economic affairs, signed by the elected leaders of three of the four Soviet republics that have strategic nuclear weapons, just the kind of reassurance the West is looking for?

Yes, and yes. Last weekend's agreement was a giant step back from the brink of civil war and nuclear chaos. At a stroke, it created the core of a potentially stable, peaceful, democratic alliance to succeed the disintegrating Soviet Union It banished the nightmare that territorial spats between Russia and Ukraine could spiral into armed conflict. The swift approval of the parliaments of the three Slavic republics demonstrated a broad consensus that the commonwealth was the right path.

At its birth, the Commonwealth already comprised 72 percent of the Soviet population and 80 percent of Soviet land area. Armenia and Kirgizia swiftly signed on; other republics seemed nearly as eager to join the Commonwealth as they had been to quit the Soviet Union a couple of months before.

Kazakhstan, the fourth republic with strategic nuclear arms seemed to be inching its way toward signing, despite some hurt feelings over whether President Nursultan Nazarbayev really had been invited to the initial negotiations. (Perhaps only in the post-Soviet Union is a claim that the phones weren't working a credible excuse for a failure to communicate between two presidents.)

The betting was that for 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, it would be difficult to build a market economy in isolation from Russia, with its sheer size and huge energy resources. The three Baltic republics, whose independence has been recognized around the world, are forging ties to Scandanavian countries and are determined to go it alone. A persistent report that Lithuania might be considering joining was squelched Friday by Lithuanian embassy spokesman Victor Nakas.


The Soviet military brass, after pitches from both Russia President Boris N. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev, appeared to be betting on the Commonwealth. The Soviet president could appeal to the patriotism of officers whose vow, after all, is to defend the Soviet Union. But as the Russian proverb says, "money doesn't smell." Mr. Yeltsin had just consented to bail out the Soviet government and keep the lights burning in Mr. Gorbachev's office. The penurious Soviet president is in no position to finance the army.

So why were Messrs. Gorbachev and Gates not rejoicing? Bot were reflecting long-held convictions that happen to coincide with their self-interest.

Mr. Gorbachev argued that the three leaders, Russia's Yeltsin Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Byelarus, had no right to take such a momentous step without consulting their parliaments or their people. The parliaments, by ratifying the agreement, answered his objection. As for the people, the unelected Mr. Gorbachev is on thin ice questioning three elected leaders' right to represent their people's interests. In any case, three heads of sovereign states (which the republics were, technically, even under the Soviet Constitution) surely have a right to sign a treaty.

There were a number of reasons, apart from principle, for Mr Gorbachev's anger. The first and most obvious is that the Commonwealth puts him out of a job. He has been beaten at his own game of union-making by his old political rival, Mr. Yeltsin, who rubbed salt in the wound by phoning President Bush rather than President Gorbachev with the good news.

Second, Mr. Gorbachev's pique may be a reaction to the Slavi presidents' brilliant stroke of selecting humble Minsk, the Byelarussian capital, instead of Moscow as headquarters of the Commonwealth. The Soviet president has encouraged non-Russian republican leaders to mistrust Mr. Yeltsin as a dangerous Russian imperialist. By choosing Minsk, Mr. Yeltsin signaled: a) that Russia has no intention of trying to hog the power in this Commonwealth, and b) that its central bureaucracy will be minimal. Minsk is a death warrant for what remains of the bloated central ministries. Mr. Gorbachev had wanted Moscow to remain "the center," both to emphasize the continuity of the union and to preserve the Kremlin as a symbol of union, and not just Russian, power.

Mr. Gorbachev, after all, set out six years ago to reform th Soviet Union, not to destroy it. His goal initially was a stronger, more prosperous, 15-republic Soviet Union, run by the Communist Party from Moscow. To his enormous credit, he abandoned many elements of this goal along the way, when the people, whose opinions he had unleashed, turned out to have their own ideas. His unintended talent is for managing demolition, for accepting the inevitable and making it sound like his idea. He may manage to do just that when he accepts, as he must, the Commonwealth.


As for Mr. Gates, the CIA chief has long argued that th prospects for a peaceful transition to democracy in the former Soviet Union are slim to none. By giving short shrift to the Commonwealth agreement and offering a scary prognosis for the devastated post-Soviet economy and boiling nationalism, he hewed to his pessimistic course.

Of course, pessimism pays for a CIA chief worried about hi budget in the wake of the Cold War. With a few exceptions, the republics today are an open book. Studying them requires plane and train tickets, open eyes and a command of local languages more than it requires electronics and skulduggery. It is a job, in other words, that diplomats might do as well as spies.

With remarkable confidence, Mr. Gates said not that there ma be, but that there will be massive disorder in Russia this winter. He may be right: The freeing of prices, now set for January 2, will coincide with the dead of winter and the New Year holidays. But over the past two years, Russians -- as opposed to other nationalities embroiled in ethnic disputes -- have responded to terrible shortages with approximately as much civil unrest as the United States has experienced over the same period.

In a poll last month, 1,002 people in 13 Russia cities were aske whether "hoping for the success of the radical reforms of the Russian leadership, you would be willing to tighten your belt further, going without many things that you and your family are used to having." Of those questioned, Moscow News reported, 43 percent said yes, 42 percent no. Remarkably, there may be a reserve of patience left for the hard months ahead.

Despite the drama of the Commonwealth's birth, it was th logical culmination of a process that began in early 1988, when Mr. Gorbachev's easing of the totalitarian grip stirred long-suppressed national aspirations in Armenia and the Baltic republics.

In November 1988, little Estonia declared its sovereignty asserting a veto right over Soviet law on its territory. Mr. Gorbachev responded with angry threats. But by the next spring's elections, the grassroots nationalist People's Fronts had captured a majority of seats in each Baltic parliament and set a clear course for independence.


By the time of the first Congress of People's Deputies in Ma 1989, physicist and human rights activist Andrei D. Sakharov was circulating his draft "Constitution of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia." He argued that ethnic strife and political chaos could be headed off only by replacing the Soviet Union with a far looser confederation. Back then, Mr. Gorbachev and the military and KGB chieftains scoffed at the idea.

A year later, Mr. Yeltsin greatly hastened the demise of the unio by coaxing the parliament he headed to declare the sovereignty of the Russian Federation. In January, 1991, after the Lithuanian television massacre, Mr. Yeltsin flew to Estonia in a dramatic recognition of the Baltic republics' right to secede. Russia, he repeatedly made clear, considered itself as much as any other republic a victim of Soviet totalitarianism. He severed Soviet imperialism from Russian patriotism and inspired all the rest of the republics to declare their sovereignty, forming a more-or-less united front against "the center."

By last spring, Mr. Gorbachev had accepted the urgent need fo a new treaty of union. But Mr. Yeltsin, unimpressed by the Gorbachev draft, began courting the leaders of Ukraine, Byelarus and Kazakhstan, hoping to persuade a few key republics to sign his treaty of union and to bypass Mr. Gorbachev altogether.

Mr. Yeltsin has now succeeded. What he did not know was tha it would take another eight months, a coup attempt and the

collapse of Communism before he would succeed.