Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms have unleashed an unprecedented tide of protests and demonstrations across the U.S.S.R. in which national grievances occupy a central place alongside economic unrest. From Alma Ata to Abkhazia, from Tallinn to Tbilisi, virtually no region of this vast and complex multinational society appears immune to the rising tide of national self-assertion. Whether in the form of anti-Russian demonstrations, as in Kazakhstan and Georgia, or in the emergence of new sociopolitical movements demanding greater economic and political autonomy, such as the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, or in more volatile outbursts of communal violence that have resulted in a tragic loss of lives and many thousands of refugees, as in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan-all pose a growing threat to Gorbachev's leadership and to the future of his reforms.

The increasing intensity of ethnonationalism among Russians and non-Russians alike, sometimes taking extreme and chauvinistic forms, has not only provoked increasing alarm among Soviet citizens and leaders, it has also precipitated a sharp controversy over Soviet policy toward the "nationalities question" and over the nature and future of the Soviet federal system itself.1

The complacent official assertion that the victory of socialism in the U.S.S.R. created a new historical community in which national antagonisms were obliterated has been exposed as a myth. A gamut of sensitive issues previously closed to discussion is the subject of heated public debate: the extent to which the national republics that comprise the Soviet federation should enjoy real sovereignty; the legal status of the Baltic republics, annexed as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; the criteria for resource allocation among the regions of the U.S.S.R., and the degree to which more developed areas should subsidize the less developed; the representation of different nationalities in leadership positions; the language and cultural rights of different national groups; the role of Russian as a lingua franca; and finally the question of where the right to make such decisions should reside.

Traditional assumptions and approaches are being directly challenged in public discussions unprecedented in their scope and frankness, as well as in the confusion, uncertainty and anxiety they bring to the surface. By injecting passionately emotional issues into what is already a contentious political struggle, rising ethnonationalism exacerbates other cleavages and further complicates the effort at political and economic reform.

Two competing visions of the Soviet system contend with each other in these debates. The first seeks to give greater political recognition to national diversity; it views the U.S.S.R. as a confederation of sovereign national republics that should enjoy substantial economic and political autonomy in shaping their own historical destinies. The second vision gives increased priority to economic and political integration; it argues-by analogy with the American model-that the individual rather than the group should be the subject of political rights, views the Soviet Union as "our common home," and insists there should be no corner of the territory of the U.S.S.R. where any Soviet citizen cannot feel at home.2 Although the Soviet leadership seeks to straddle the issue, difficult policy choices will have to be made.


To Gorbachev's critics, including members of the top party leadership itself, the growing tensions and controversies surrounding national relations are yet additional evidence that glasnost and democratization have gone too far. Soviet achievements, they have charged, are regularly maligned in the media, unofficial political groups are challenging the leadership and the very legitimacy of the party, and national movements are taking advantage of an excessively tolerant political environment to marshal forces that will ultimately challenge Soviet rule. In the view of these critics, current developments are exacerbating inter-ethnic relations in general, posing a growing threat to the Russian settler communities dispersed throughout the non-Russian regions of the country and ultimately threatening the cohesion and very stability of the Soviet system.3 Indeed, this pessimistic assessment is shared by those Western observers who argue that the Soviet system is incapable of genuine reforms; they believe that current trends reflect a process not of revitalization but of decay, and therefore that American interests are best served by encouraging the progressive "Ottomanization" of the Soviet system rather than lending support to Gorbachev's reforms.

In the view of Soviet reformers, by contrast, glasnost and democratization-compounded by sharply deteriorating economic conditions-have simply brought to the surface long-simmering resentments and grievances and provided legitimate outlets for their expression. The eruption of national tensions in the past few years is for them dramatic evidence that traditional ways of managing the multinational Soviet system have reached a dead end, and demonstrates the urgency of a fundamental restructuring of nationality policy. Echoing Gorbachev's own words, they insist that turmoil is inseparable from revitalization, and that some degree of instability is a necessary condition of any far-reaching change. Resort to political repression will not only provoke popular explosions of increasing scale and ferocity and strengthen separatist tendencies, they argue; it would also entail the demise of the reform process itself, cause further economic decline and lead to a return of a more authoritarian system.

The effort of the Soviet leadership to cope with this rising tide of national unrest is complicated by the fact that it embraces at least two distinct, though mutually reinforcing, currents. The first is the growing assertiveness of national elites (and above all, their cultural intelligentsia) in challenging the extreme centralization of the Soviet system and demanding greater economic, political and cultural autonomy. The second current is a more amorphous and unorganized but intense and potentially explosive sense of resentment. It is particularly strong among unskilled workers and underemployed or unemployed youth, whose economic and political grievances are in effect displaced onto ethnic hostility directed against "outsiders."4 Coping with both dimensions of this problem therefore requires not only far-reaching changes in a broad range of attitudes, institutions and policies connected with national relations, it also demands that a clear line be drawn between legitimate political and economic protest and impermissible communal violence.

The Soviet leadership, and Gorbachev in particular, clearly failed to anticipate that the process of reform would inevitably reignite the "nationalities question," and then they underestimated its potential explosiveness. In this as in other areas, Gorbachev's education was rapid; in two short years, between 1986 and 1988, swiftly moving events propelled the nationalities question to the top of the Soviet political agenda. The decision to convene a special plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee to address critical problems of national relations was clear recognition of both the urgency of the challenge and the need for new departures. The fact that the plenum, as of this writing, has been postponed four times is testimony to the issue's complexity. Whether the Soviet leadership will succeed in containing and managing the complex and contradictory pressures created by national aspirations, demands and conflicts is critical to the prospects for political stability, as well as reform, in the months ahead.


The complexity of the nationalities question in contemporary Soviet politics stems from the fact that the key actors are not merely dispersed ethnic groups, as in the United States, but nations and nationalities inhabiting or laying claim to historical territorial homelands. Over one hundred such national groups-differing in language, culture, historical experience, religion, and level of economic and social development-make up the Soviet population today, with Russians comprising just over half the total. By contrast with the American pattern, political-administrative boundaries in the U.S.S.R. tend to coincide with ethnic boundaries, infusing center-periphery relations with heightened emotional intensity and injecting the nationalities question into virtually every aspect of Soviet policy.

Gorbachev's dilemmas have their roots in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which established Soviet power on the ruins of the tsarist imperial state. Lenin had attempted to win the support of the newly emerging movements for national liberation within the empire (as well as outside it) by espousing the principle of national self-determination. With the new Soviet state securely established, its leaders were compelled to reconcile their socialist ideology-which viewed nationalism as an anachronistic political force and insisted that class rather than nation was the most fundamental social identity-with the imperial legacy they now sought to preserve.

The "Leninist compromise" created a federal system that granted political-administrative recognition and the symbols of nationhood to a number of national groups (whose historical homelands now became nominally sovereign republics within the U.S.S.R.) and committed itself to the development of their national languages and cultures. At the same time, it was built around a highly centralized and increasingly authoritarian party organization imbued with a radically internationalist ideology.

A fundamental tension was thus built into the Soviet system from its very origins: the federal structure offered an organizational framework and political legitimacy for the protection and advancement of the interests of national groups, but at the same time Soviet ideology anticipated the ultimate dissolution of national attachments and loyalties and sought the creation of an integrated political and economic community based on universal Soviet citizenship. What balance to strike between these two orientations has remained an enduring dilemma in Soviet politics.

The Stalin era was marked by a dramatic shift toward greater centralization, cultural Russification and the repression of non-Russian national elites. The rights of republics and autonomous regions were whittled away, their boundaries arbitrarily redrawn, and the populations of some liquidated or forcibly resettled during World War II, as in the cases of Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechen-Ingush, Volga Germans and Meskhetian Georgians. National histories were rewritten to emphasize the progressive character of Russian imperialism, and criticism of Great Russian chauvinism came to an end. Central economic ministries treated the entire territory of the U.S.S.R. as a single complex, establishing new industries and relocating workers without concern for republic boundaries. The cultivation of national languages and cultures was replaced by a process of Sovietization that was sometimes indistinguishable from Russification. The imperial features of the Soviet system were further strengthened during World War II with the forcible annexation of the Baltic states, the western Ukraine and Byelorussia, and part of Moldavia.

While repression served as a critical mechanism in maintaining central domination, the Stalinist system of rule also depended on the cultivation and cooperation of indigenous political elites whose loyalty was rewarded by significant opportunities for advancement. Moreover, the economic and social changes launched in the Stalin era-industrialization, urbanization and the spread of educational opportunities-far from obliterating national identities and loyalties, served to strengthen them. The emergence of modern urban elites in the national republics, in which the cultural intelligentsia occupied a dominant and prestigious place, provided critical leadership in the process of national revival in subsequent decades.

Stalin's death in 1953, and the process of de-Stalinization initiated by Khrushchev, began to unravel the system of controls and challenge the myths that sustained it. Cautiously and selectively, a reassessment of Stalin's legacy in nationality policy, as in other areas, was launched. While Brezhnev's policies sought to mute the reformist impulse, by the early 1980s it was becoming clear that traditional instruments for managing the Soviet multinational system were largely exhausted.

The diminishing vitality and relevance of official ideology reduced its potency as a cohesive force in inter-ethnic relations, and an upsurge of national and religious values began to fill the void. Central control over personnel was weakened by policies that guaranteed greater stability to party elites in national republics, and thereby fostered greater autonomy and a growing assertiveness in managing "their" republics. Economic stringency and declining social mobility increased competition among social and national groups, whether for new investment in housing and health care, for scarce places in higher educational institutions or for valued jobs. Frustrated ambitions and resentments were readily displaced onto other ethnic groups, creating friction among members of different nationalities and heated controversies over whether certain groups were receiving preferential treatment. The growing sources of strain did not escape the notice of Soviet ethnographers and sociologists conducting empirical research on ethnic relations, but the obligatory tone of self-congratulation that permeated their writings reduced their utility in preparing either the political leadership or the educated public for the problems ahead.


Gorbachev came to power relatively ill prepared-both by personal temperament and by previous political experience-to deal with the nationalities question. He was clearly impatient that such intensely emotional, indeed irrational, sentiments could divert attention from the larger struggle over reform. By contrast with his predecessors, his political career had not included a stint in a non-Russian republic, and his early speeches contained little beyond the customary platitudes on the subject.

In his initial preoccupation with rationalizing the economic and political system, and his focus on efficiency and control, he demonstrated little sensitivity to how key decisions would impinge on national relations. He was taken by surprise, for example, when the appointment of Gennadi Kolbin, a Russian, to succeed Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the ethnically Kazakh first secretary of the Kazakhstan party organization, triggered massive disturbances in the capital city of Alma Ata in December 1986.

In succeeding years a series of upheavals and demonstrations in other national areas, culminating in the bloody Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontations over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, forced the issue to the center of attention. The tenor of Gorbachev's own speeches on national relations shifted from his initial complacency to increasing concern. They contained a growing acknowledgment of errors and distortions in the party's nationalities policy, and a recognition that the nationalities question was not a peripheral one but stood at the heart of (and was inextricably entwined with) the issue of reform itself.5

Three aspects of Gorbachev's reform program played critical roles in bringing nationalities problems to the forefront of politics. First and foremost was the impact of glasnost, which gave an enormous impetus to the expression of long-simmering grievances by legitimizing public discussion of issues that were previously taboo, and allowing the Soviet media to become settings for genuine public debate. Gorbachev himself gave explicit encouragement to this trend when he complained that for years social scientists had depicted national relations in an excessively rosy light, and that the absence of frank discussions of the problems had in fact exacerbated them. Social scientists, he asserted, should stop depicting national relations in terms "reminiscent . . . of complimentary toasts rather than serious scientific studies."6

The leadership's increasingly radical critique of Stalinism, and its call for the development of a new model of socialism, gave further impetus to a fundamental reassessment of the nationalities question. By explicitly criticizing Stalin's deviations from and distortions of Lenin's nationality policy the leadership was, in effect, officially sanctioning a broader public assault. A growing number of articles, letters and roundtable discussions in the Soviet media began to speak out against an overcentralization that undermined the very principle of federation, against economic ministries that rode roughshod over local needs and interests, against language and cultural policies that were tantamount to forced Russification and threatened the extinction of national identities, against the mutilation of national histories and the repression of national elites.

Moreover, the outburst of grievances was not confined to the non-Russian part of the Soviet population. The revival of national self-consciousness extended to Russians themselves, and found expression in complaints that the greatest hardships in the course of Soviet development had been borne by the Russian Republic, the well-being of which had been sacrificed to the progress of the backward regions of the country. In this view, the existing federal system-far from reflecting the domination of Russians over the rest of the union as many non-Russians were now alleging-in fact revealed their victimization. The absence of a separate Russian Republic party organization, or a specifically Russian academy of sciences, some argued, demonstrated the inferior position of Russians within the federation.

Increased official tolerance for the revival of national consciousness (and indeed of religious belief, as the handling of the millenium of Orthodox Christianity illustrated) among Russians and non-Russians alike reflected a broader normalization of regime-society relations, and a growing appreciation of the value as well as the reality of social pluralism. Gorbachev explicitly endorsed this attitude in a meeting with journalists in July 1987 when he asserted: "Every people has its own language and its own history; it wants to understand its roots. Can this be at variance with socialism? Of course not."7

The effects of glasnost were given additional impetus by the political "democratization" that by 1988 had come to occupy a central place in Gorbachev's reform program. His reforms radically transformed the Soviet political landscape by encouraging greater grass-roots political activism, expanding the boundaries of permissible political activity and curtailing the activities of the KGB. Where once the effort of a small handful of dissidents to demonstrate against Soviet policy resulted in prison terms, exile or confinement in psychiatric institutions, now mass meetings and public demonstrations numbering many thousands of participants became a regular feature of the Soviet scene. Informal and unofficial organizations devoted to a variety of political and social causes (with environmental issues high on many agendas) proliferated, aided by new communications technologies-above all, personal computers-that facilitated the production and circulation of a myriad of newsletters, communiqués and documents.

While these new political movements embraced a broad spectrum of causes and orientations, common nationality and shared historical grievances were among the most powerful of all potential bonds, and the scale of the national republics and density of contacts among their intellectual elites offered a natural basis for organization. The emergence of popular fronts in the three Baltic republics, the most organizationally and programmatically cohesive of all the new political movements, served as both inspiration and model to other groups, not only in a number of non-Russian republics, including Byelorussia, Moldavia and Georgia, but in many cities of the Russian Republic itself. At the same time, these new movements provoked counter-organizations among the increasingly alarmed and hostile Russians who had settled in non-Russian republics. They saw their own interests and status threatened by developments in the Baltic republics, and they appealed to their own patrons in the central party leadership for support.

Political democratization also altered the status and attitudes of local leaders. Once almost exclusively dependent on political superiors, their careers now depended as well on their perceived responsiveness to local constituencies, as measured by success or failure in competitive elections.

The dilemma of maintaining central control over local officials while encouraging them to be responsive to local constituencies is best illustrated by the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh-a predominantly Armenian enclave within the Azerbaijan Republic. In June 1988 virtually the entire political leadership of the Armenian Republic supported the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The Azerbaijani leadership voted to retain the territory.

This division marked a watershed in Soviet political life. For the first time in its history, the Communist Party itself had fragmented along clearly national lines. Growing national divisions were creating tensions within other republic party organizations as well, prompting repeated appeals from the Baltic leadership to maintain party unity and organizational discipline.

By mid-1989, while the newly elected Congress of People's Deputies was debating the virtues of a multiparty system, many Soviet citizens were claiming that, de facto, one already existed. In virtually every republic, embryonic political organizations had emerged, embracing a broad spectrum of political positions, from explicitly separatist parties in several of the non-Russian republics, to extreme Russian chauvinist organizations like Pamyat, to the progressive Popular Fronts, to Christian, Social-Democratic, "Green" and other movements. Local authorities displayed equally varied attitudes toward these new movements: in the Baltic republics many officials had close ties with the Popular Fronts, whereas in the Ukraine and Byelorussia the authorities sought to suppress them.

Finally, economic stringency-compounded by the disruptions caused by the very process of economic reorganization-was itself a major source of rising discontent, just as economic growth had earlier contributed to political stability. Emboldened by a political climate that tolerated increasing outspokenness and expression of discontent, striking miners in Siberia and the Ukraine in July extracted major concessions from the leadership and set an example that was likely to have widespread repercussions. Their grievances could be directed against local officials and used to promote more radical reform. In more volatile multiethnic settings, however, economic grievances were increasingly spilling over into communal violence.

In sum, a complex and volatile process of political mobilization was under way in the U.S.S.R. which thrust the nationalities question to the top of the political agenda.


The decision to convene a special plenum of the party Central Committee to formulate new directions for Soviet nationality policy was both a response to growing tensions and demands and a catalyst in eliciting alternative proposals. The discussions leading up to the plenum revealed some profound shifts in the very understanding of the problem. But they also made clear both the difficulty and the danger of the task, and the depth of disagreement over what directions Soviet policy should take.

The point of departure of much of the commentary about national relations-and the one area in which a virtual consensus appeared to prevail-was the explicit abandonment of the myth that the nationalities question could be once and for all time "solved." For several decades Soviet policy was based on the expectation that modernization and socialism would automatically erode national identities and loyalties and that a new multinational community, based on the equality, prosperity, harmony and increasing uniformity of all its members, would be the outcome. Such illusions have largely vanished, and in Soviet rhetoric the focus on "solving" the nationalities question has been replaced with a concern over "managing" it.

Yet another staple of earlier discussions that is also vanishing from the pages of Soviet publications is the view that the disappearance of national differences is a possible or desirable object of policy. While Soviet scholars and officials have acknowledged for a number of years that national identities are less malleable and more enduring than classical socialist theory posited, what is novel in current Soviet discussions is the considerable value now attached to national distinctiveness and the notion that its disappearance would constitute an irreparable human loss.

This view was most eloquently expressed by a distinguished Soviet ethnographer, Sergei Arutyunov, who explicitly took issue with the traditional view that natural ethnic assimilation is a progressive phenomenon:

Any disappearance of an ethnos is a tragic phenomenon. . . . The concept of ethnic pluralism should have its Communist variant. . . . Soviet society has an interest in preserving the specific cultural heritage of all ethnoses, since deethnicization leads to a divorce from historical roots with the inevitably ensuing growth of soullessness, the coarsening of behavioral norms, and the loss of the most important moral-ethical values.8

In a similar vein, the noted Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov observed in an interview:

When we conjecture theoretically that in time, in some distant future, all languages will merge and there will be only one or two languages in the world, we hardly recognize, captivated by the prospect, that the world will be impoverished by this. These "victorious" languages will not have a nurturing environment. Monotony cannot support development. Therefore, it is important to support the diversity of languages as long as possible.9

The growing interest in rediscovering, reviving and protecting national groups and their cultural heritage in effect repudiates earlier assimilationist goals. It argues that the newly discovered espousal of pluralism should be extended to ethnicity. If diversity is to be cultivated-both at home and abroad-rather than eradicated, reformers now argue, the fundamental challenge is to reduce the potential for conflict and to create mechanisms for managing it non-repressively.

A third element in the emerging "new thinking" about national relations involves the recognition that a country as vast and diverse as the U.S.S.R. cannot be treated as a monolithic whole. Differentiated policies are required, suited to the distinctive problems and needs of different regions of the country, and increasingly varied patterns of economic, political and cultural life are likely to be the outcome. How such variations can be accommodated within the framework of a single political, economic and legal universe has now emerged as a major subject of controversy.

Changes in the present federal structure to expand the rights and responsibilities of union republics are likely to be adopted in the months ahead. Constitutional changes have been proposed that would distinguish those areas that are appropriately subject to all-union jurisdiction (e.g., foreign affairs, defense, overall economic planning) from those that can be more effectively managed by local authorities (e.g., economic and social policy, ecology, education and cultural affairs). The precise balance to be struck, however, is the subject of considerable disagreement, and this, in turn, reflects a more fundamental struggle over the nature of the federal system. Moscow sees these changes as a devolution of power from the center, by contrast with some of the radical defenders of republic sovereignty who would limit the powers of the central government to those explicitly delegated by the republics. Indeed, a potential constitutional crisis has already been created by decisions affirming republic sovereignty over the territory of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and insisting that no all-union legislation can take effect without explicit approval by republic organs.

The present state structure of the U.S.S.R.-which comprises 15 union republics, 18 autonomous republics, 23 autonomous provinces and 48 autonomous regions (all of which are themselves multinational)-in itself gives rise to new demands. The higher a unit stands in this hierarchy, the greater the advantages it tends to enjoy. But the rationale for many of these arrangements no longer seems persuasive. Several sizable nationalities are demanding that their status be upgraded. Other groups are demanding the restoration of their state structures abolished by Stalin. Disputed territories, like Nagorno-Karabakh, present an additional set of problems. And the prospect of enhanced republic autonomy has in turn triggered violent protests from minority nationalities within these republics who fear that their own rights might be curtailed. Protests in the autonomous republic of Abkhazia (in the republic of Georgia), for instance, touched off the demonstrations in Tbilisi that led to at least 20 deaths in April 1989 and violent outbreaks in subsequent months that have proved difficult to control. The Soviet leadership thus faces a difficult trade-off between correcting what are perceived as grave historical injustices and opening up a Pandora's box from which redress of the grievances of one national group can be achieved only at the expense of another.

Pressures for restructuring the federal system focus particularly sharply on altering the economic relationships between center and periphery. The central economic ministries have been the target of harsh criticism for arrogantly ignoring the social, cultural and ecological interests of local communities. They are accused of siting industrial plants without serious consultation with local authorities; importing large numbers of workers from outside many regions without provision for social and cultural infrastructure, forcing overburdened municipalities to deal with the consequences; and of polluting rivers and poisoning the air without regard for the health and welfare of future generations. These built-in features of what has come to be called the "command-administrative system" provoke particular resentment when they are perceived to threaten vital republic interests, as, for example, when massive immigration threatens to make the titular nationality a minority in its own republic.

While a special government commission headed by Yuri Maslyukov, chairman of the State Planning Commission, has prepared draft legislation that would enhance the economic powers of the republics, the Estonian and Lithuanian republics have moved ahead with even more far-reaching plans for economic autonomy. Considerable sympathy for their approach can be found among reformist intellectuals and political figures. Academician Leonid Abalkin, a distinguished economist and now a vice premier of the U.S.S.R., has argued, for example:

It is necessary to recognize a union republic's sovereign right to solve any problems associated with the construction of new enterprises, regardless of whether they are detrimental to nature or not. After all, when we talk about a territory we mean more than just a shaded area on a geographical map. It means a people's habitat, a social and cultural sphere within which a people's history evolved. And these very sensitive factors, which are impossible to translate into the language of economic calculations, must without fail be taken into account when solving problems of republic self-management.10

Although the recently elected Supreme Soviet has approved the Baltic plan in principle, a number of delegates and officials have expressed concern that republic economic autonomy is incompatible with a unified economic system and with a social policy requiring redistribution of resources across the entire U.S.S.R. Indeed, some view these proposals as a thinly disguised step toward secession. Although critics acknowledge that greater local control could conceivably yield economic benefits, they fear it would increase tendencies toward autarky at the republic level, which Moscow would be loath to sanction. They point out that at a time when Europe is moving toward greater political and economic integration, pressures for local economic autonomy in the Soviet Union represent a step backward.

Finally, significant changes are already under way with regard to language policy. The Soviet Union is officially committed to bilingualism, but in practice this policy has been one-sided and asymmetrical. The entire population of the Soviet Union has been obliged to study Russian, which serves as the language of inter-national communication in the country as a whole. At the same time, Russians and other non-titular nationalities residing in the non-Russian republics have not been under an equal obligation to learn the languages of the republics in which they live and work.

Following heated public discussions, six union republics have now adopted legislation that makes their national language the official language of the republic and mandates its use in a variety of contexts. This may seem a reasonable solution to members of the titular nationality of the republic, but others perceive it as a grave threat. Not only does it have great symbolic importance, but language policy has a decisive influence on the educational and career opportunities of different groups. Because the Russian settler communities or other nationalities residing in these republics will be obliged to adjust to these changes in their status if they choose to remain, many of their members have understandably been in the forefront of resistance to these measures. Moreover, during the long term these changes-which will enhance the cultural distinctiveness of the various republics-will increase the obstacles to mobility throughout the U.S.S.R.

These developments have focused new attention on how to guarantee the rights of all Soviet citizens against infringements by local as well as central authorities. They have also provoked a discussion of how to address the language and cultural needs of the large number of nationals living outside their titular republics-some 55 million Soviet citizens, by recent count. New opportunities for the creation of voluntary associations and cultural institutions have emerged in the past few years, and these might well supplement state institutions in serving the needs of ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that controversy over language and cultural rights will be a continuing feature of the Soviet scene, whatever measures are adopted.

All these policy dilemmas point up the need for new political mechanisms in which conflicting demands can be expressed and managed in a noncoercive way. The Supreme Soviet (in particular its Council of Nationalities) is emerging as a major forum for addressing problems of national relations. But a whole range of new institutions-from research centers, to government agencies, to judicial institutions-will have to be created to manage the complex issues that lie ahead.


The Gorbachev coalition is caught between contending forces pressing for and against major changes in nationality policies. Moving forward on these issues without violently antagonizing any major constituency will tax the considerable political talents of the Soviet leader. His strategy appears to be to build a coalition between reformist elements at the center and the moderates in the various republics and regions around the country (reaching out to distinguished members of the intelligentsia of different national groups) to avoid a polarization of political alternatives along national lines. At the same time, he has been careful not to open himself to charges that he is presiding over the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Only a short time ago one of Gorbachev's problems was how to stimulate initiative on the local level. Now he faces the challenge of containing and channeling local forces. The rapid tempo of events and the limited instruments available to the central leadership (short of a potentially disastrous resort to coercion to enforce "law and order") make this a particularly daunting task.

The mounting tide of national tensions in the Soviet Union also poses a challenge to Western observers. The events of the past few years call into question earlier predictions that identified Islamic fundamentalism as the critical source of potential destabilization, urging Western policymakers to exploit it. Recent developments also reveal the limitations of other conventional paradigms-that the fundamental cleavage in Soviet society pitted Russians against non-Russians or that Great Russian nationalism had captured the Soviet elite.

All this underscores the complexity as well as the volatility of the Soviet scene and the difficulties in assessing-let alone predicting or influencing-political developments there. Under the circumstances the United States would be well advised, while reaffirming the principle of national self-determination and cognizant of the special legal status of the Baltic states, to refrain from aligning itself in support of one or another national group. What the United States should do is to broaden its knowledge of the diverse nations and territories that make up the Soviet Union and to expand the spectrum of political, cultural and economic contacts with them.

1 The term "nationalities" is used here to refer to the entire range of nations, nationalities and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union.

2 Both positions, and numerous variations on them, have been elaborated in a number of Soviet publications including the party's theoretical organ, Kommunist, in 1988-89.

3 The view that opponents of reform will be the main beneficiaries of increasing national unrest is a continuing theme in major speeches and publications. As a recent article in Pravda warned: "Nationalistic ideas and manifestations . . . only strengthen the position of the opponents of perestroika." (May 22, 1989, p. 2.)

4 Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, both scenes of considerable ethnic violence, also have the highest rates of adults not employed in socialized production-23 percent and 27 percent, respectively, compared to 8 percent in the Russian Republic. (From "Ideologicheskiye problemy mezhnatsionalnykh otnoshenii," in Izvestiya TsK KPSS, no. 6, 1989, p.79.)

5 On July 1, 1989, responding to spreading ethnic violence in Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Gorbachev delivered a somber speech on national television appealing for an end to ethnic strife. Warning that those who sought to stir up national hatreds were playing with fire, Gorbachev stated: "The present generation and our descendents will curse both those who pushed us onto this path and those who did not warn in time and halt the madness." (Pravda, July 2, 1989.)

6 Pravda, Jan. 28, 1987.

7 Pravda, July 15, 1987.

8 "Natsionalnye protsessy v SSSR: itogi, tendentsii, problemy, Beseda za 'kruglym stolom'," Istoriya SSSR, no. 6 (1987), p. 94.

9 Interview in Literaturnaya gazeta, Aug. 13, 1986, p. 4.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Gail W. Lapidus is Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley and directs the Berkeley-Stanford Program in Soviet Studies. The author of a number of articles and books on Soviet politics and foreign policy, she is at work on a study of ethnonationalism and political stability in the U.S.S.R.
  • More By Gail W. Lapidus