Gorbachev's Nationalities Problem

Courtesy Reuters

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

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