The time has come for the West to confront as a policy issue a problem that for years most Western scholars have tended to ignore and that all Western policymakers still consider to be taboo: the rising tide of nationalism in Eastern Europe and especially in the Soviet Union itself. This long-dormant issue is now becoming, in a dynamic and conflictual fashion, the central reality of the once seemingly homogeneous Soviet world. Indeed, whereas Marx once described the tsarist Russian empire as the prison of nations, and Stalin turned it into the graveyard of nations, under Gorbachev the Soviet empire is rapidly becoming the volcano of nations.

Until recently, the West preferred to downplay the reality of East European national aspirations and to downgrade the implications of non-Russian national awareness within the Soviet Union. Moreover, most Westerners perceived the Soviet Union as identical with Russia and assumed almost automatically that any Soviet citizen was a Russian. This has now changed. National conflicts have ruptured the illusion of communist brotherhood and the mirage of some sort of supra-ethnic Soviet nationhood. Henceforth, the ongoing crisis of communism within the once homogeneous Soviet bloc is likely to define itself through increased national assertiveness and even rising national turmoil. In fact, there is a high probability that the progressing self-emancipation of the East European nations and the growing sense of national distinctiveness among the non-Russian nations of the Soviet "Union" will soon make the existing Soviet bloc the arena for the globe's most acute national conflicts.

None of this should be construed as a lament for communism. Its fading is a liberation for those who have had to live under its stultifying and dehumanizing regime. Moreover, though it proclaimed itself to be a doctrine of internationalism, communism in fact intensified popular nationalist passions. It produced a political culture imbued with intolerance, self-righteousness, rejection of social compromise and a massive inclination toward self-glorifying oversimplification. On the level of belief, dogmatic communism thus fused with and even reinforced intolerant nationalism; on the level of practice, the destruction of such relatively internationalist social classes as the aristocracy or the business elite further reinforced the populist inclination toward nationalistic chauvinism. Nationalism was thereby nurtured, rather than diluted, in the communist experience.

As the communist veneer now fades and nationalism surfaces more assertively, the time is thus becoming ripe for the West to define more deliberately its interests. What sort of Eastern Europe do we wish to see emerge from Soviet domination? Is the secession of some or all non-Russian nations from the Soviet Union something that the West ought to encourage? Should we discriminate in that regard between the various Soviet nations? How should we react if the Kremlin again adopts a more repressive attitude toward non-Russians? What should be our attitude toward Great Russian nationalism, especially as it too becomes more openly assertive? What are the international strategic and economic implications of these issues? How does all this relate to our commitment to the cause of human rights?


This large agenda of related issues must be examined in the context of a historically grounded understanding of the phenomenon of nationalism in the Soviet world. While that phenomenon has rather different meanings in the East European and Soviet contexts, the two are also politically related. As a result, they cannot be treated as entirely separate and distinct issues. What happens-indeed, what is already happening-in Eastern Europe is bound to affect the internal affairs of the Soviet Union. Evidence abounds to demonstrate that the events in Poland have directly affected the Baltic states, and mounting evidence is coming to light that the Ukraine and Byelorussia are becoming susceptible to the ripple effects of events immediately to their west. It may thus be only a slight exaggeration to aver that the potential "Balkanization" of Eastern Europe could be paralleled by the eventual "Lebanization" of the Soviet Union.

Conversely, massive national repression in the Soviet Union would affect adversely the process of democratization in Eastern Europe, but also arouse stronger nationalist passions within the region. Any such repression would have to be based on Great Russian nationalism-and its assertion would be likely not only to have a chilling effect on democratic hopes but also an intensifying impact on East European nationalisms, only thinly veiled by communist internationalist phraseology.

Eastern Europe has only two ethnically homogeneous states-and none without potentially severe territorial-national conflicts with their immediate neighbors. Poland is nationally and religiously the most cohesive, with 95 percent of its almost 40 million people both ethnically Polish and Roman Catholic. Hungary, 90 percent of whose 11 million people are Magyar, is the second most ethnically cohesive country, though more fragmented in its religious affinities. Every other East European state either has significant national minorities or is even ethnically diverse.

The two most diverse societies are those of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Yugoslavia is an amalgam of six nationally distinct peoples, further divided by differences in religion. The politically dominant Serbs, with nine million of the country's 24 million people, represent the most significant plurality, though their dominance has made them the object of considerable animus on the part of the economically more advanced but outnumbered Croats and Slovenes and the intensely nationalistic Albanians. Czechoslovakia is a federation between the more numerous and developed Czechs, who represent ten million of the country's 16 million people, and the somewhat resentful Slovaks, who for a brief time during World War II had their own state. Both Romania and Bulgaria also have substantial national minorities.

Moreover, all these states have borders that are potentially subject to revisionist aspirations on the part of their neighbors. Poland has a lingering, though not acute, territorial grievance against Czechoslovakia, and Poland itself could be the object of German territorial revanchism. Already in the 1980s, a sharp dispute developed over the maritime border between the communist governments of Poland and the German Democratic Republic, including access to the Polish port of Szczecin. In addition, possible countervailing territorial claims exist between Poland and its currently Soviet neighbors to the east: Lithuania, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Czechoslovakia and Hungary also harbor some resentments over the treatment of their respective national minorities living within the other's frontiers, and these could mushroom into border disputes.

Much more serious and potentially even explosive is the openly antagonistic Hungarian-Romanian dispute over Transylvania, currently a part of Romania but once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and inhabited by several million Hungarians who have been oppressed by the dominant Romanians. Romania, in turn, has historical claims against the Soviet Ukraine over Bessarabia and against Soviet Moldavia, and a potential one against Bulgaria over the Black Sea region of Dobruja. To complete the circle, Bulgaria nurtures national ambitions regarding Yugoslavia's Macedonia. Yugoslavia in the meantime has a rapidly growing and increasingly restless Albanian majority in the region of Kosovo, which itself could soon become the object of Albanian irredentism.

This mosaic of unsatisfied territorial desires and of national antagonisms-in itself not necessarily more complex than that of many other parts of the world, including Western Europe-is aggravated by the historical immaturity of Eastern Europe's nationalisms. While most of the region's nations are historical entities, with some legitimately boasting national histories comparable to those of any of the West European nations, Eastern Europe's nationalisms still tend to be more volatile, more emotional and more intense than those in the West. Moreover, the separate East European national states lack the tempering experience of genuine regional cooperation that in recent decades has emerged in Western Europe, starting with the Marshall Plan, continuing with the European Coal and Steel Community and eventually maturing into the supranational European Community, with its region-wide elections to the European Parliament.

Instead, while under Soviet domination and even while their regimes proclaimed fidelity to an allegedly internationalist doctrine, the East European states developed their economies and consolidated their political systems as hermetically sealed national entities. Moscow permitted no real economic cooperation among them. Polish-Czechoslovak plans, developed during World War II, for a genuine federation between the two states were scuttled by the Kremlin, as was the postwar initiative by the communist leaders Tito and Georgi Dimitrov for a confederation between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Instead, all lines of cooperation ran vertically to Moscow, not horizontally among the regional states. The Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance served essentially as instruments of Soviet control.

Otherwise, each state was strictly isolated from its neighbors. Barbed-wire fences separated communist states as much from one another as they did from the ideologically alien West. Travel was strictly controlled, and so was the flow of press and of educational exchanges. Bilateral economic cooperation was also discouraged in favor of national economic autarky, the latter only restrained by the policy of promoting some degree of economic dependence on the Soviet Union. With Moscow encouraging each state to cultivate both its official ideology and its distinctive nationalism, under Soviet domination East European nationalisms were further intensified and in some cases even warped into chauvinism.

The threat of Balkanization of the region as it emancipates itself from Soviet control is thus real. Economically retarded by the communist experiment, with narrow chauvinism intensified, Eastern Europe is faced with the prospect of internal and external strife as it gropes its way back to a closer relationship with the Western Europe it has always admired. That danger need not express itself in a replay of the old Balkan wars, but can do so through acute ethnic violence, local national clashes and even territorial collisions. The Albanian-Serb confrontations in Kosovo and the Hungarian-Romanian tensions over Transylvania could be portents of wider things to come. In brief, the de-Sovietization of Eastern Europe is not likely to be automatically tantamount to the peaceful expansion of all-European cooperation, with the European Community serving as the model.


These dangers pale in significance compared to the growing prospect of truly intense and potentially quite bloody international strife within the Soviet Union. Its various non-Russian nationalisms are less fulfilled and thus even more emotionally charged than those of Eastern Europe, in some cases with less historically defined borders and yet with even more commingling of potentially hostile peoples. Moreover, any attempt by Moscow to satisfy the desires of the historically more recognized nations-notably the Baltic ones, which have been contagiously influenced by developments in Poland-is likely to precipitate claims from newer national aspirants for equal treatment.

The scale and complexity of the Soviet national problem is striking. Of the Soviet Union's 290 million people, roughly 145 million are Great Russians. The other 145 million-who soon will outnumber the Russians because of more rapid demographic growth-are dispersed among 14 main nations with their own so-called Soviet republics, accounting for approximately 120 million of the 145 million non-Russians. Another hundred minor ethnic groupings have been organized or reorganized in a variety of autonomous republics or national regions. Complicating the picture further-and representing a potential time bomb for truly violent national feuding-is the fact that about 25 million Great Russians live scattered among the non-Russians, and more than 40 million non-Russians live outside their ethnic territories. These "outsiders," who number more than 65 million combined, represent the potential precipitating cause, as well as the likely victims, of any large-scale national strife.

Indeed, not a single non-Russian nation in the Soviet Union exists without significant intermingling of Russian or some other ethnic minority (see Table 1). In some, the major potential line of conflict runs vertically-against the Great Russian Kremlin and its local Russian settlers. That is the case, for example, with Estonia (with its population 25 percent Russian), Latvia (30 percent Russian), Kirghizia (also 30 percent Russian) and Kazakhstan (60 percent Russian or Ukrainian), and potentially the Ukraine (about 20 percent Russian). In others, the lines of conflict tend to be more horizontal-either against some other non-Russian minority (as with the Georgian animus toward the Abkhazians) or against a neighboring Soviet nation (as with the strife between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each of which has significant minorities from the other). In others still, the lines of conflict are likely to be both vertical and horizontal, as is the case in central Asia, where considerable commingling exists among local ethnic groups and Slavic settlers.

Moreover, quite unintentionally, the Soviet regime has created institutional vessels that now can be easily filled with nationalist content. The Soviet political structure has consisted for decades of allegedly sovereign republics, each even enjoying the right to secede from the Soviet Union (although, under Stalin, communist non-Russian leaders were quite often shot for allegedly planning to avail themselves of this "constitutional" option). In fact, offsetting that formal structure was the real system of centralized power, located in Moscow and wielded largely by Great Russians, reinforced by a doctrine of Soviet "nationhood" based on the Russian language and history. Nonetheless, the fictional political structure of separate national republics continued throughout the Stalinist era; a political framework for the eventual expression and then assertion of ethnic aspirations was, therefore, ready and waiting for the day of national awakening.



Population Native Russian Others

Republic (millions) (percent) (percent) (percent)

Russian 137.6 83 83 17

Ukrainian 49.8 75 19 6

Uzbek 15.4 66 13 22

Kazakh 14.7 33 42 25

Byelorussian 9.6 81 10 9

Azerbaijan 6.0 74 10 16

Georgian 5.0 67 9 25

Moldavian 3.9 65 12 24

Tajik 3.8 56 12 32

Kirghiz 3.5 44 29 27

Lithuanian 3.4 80 9 11

Armenian 3.0 89 3 9

Turkmen 2.8 57 15 29

Latvian 2.5 57 30 13

Estonian 1.5 68 25 7

Note: Based on 1979 census data.

That time arrived with Mikhail Gorbachev's demokratizatsia and perestroika. Gorbachev's realization that the Soviet system could not be revitalized without a significant decentralization of economic decision-making and without a broader democratization of the political system inherently meant that the national units would have to be endowed with greater authority. That automatically created an opportunity for long-suppressed national grievances to surface and for national aspirations to focus on the quest for effective control over the potentially significant local instruments of power. Hence, again quite unintentionally, Gorbachev's emphasis on greater legality-so necessary to the revival of the Soviet economy-gave the non-Russians a powerful weapon for contesting Moscow's control over their destiny.

In doing so, they seized on the provisions of the hitherto largely formalistic Soviet constitution. As Article 76 of that constitution states, "A union republic is a sovereign Soviet socialist state that has united with other Soviet Republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" [emphasis added]. The document even affirms in Article 80 a union republic's "right to enter into relations with foreign states, conclude treaties with them" and refers again in Article 81 to "the sovereign rights of the union republics." Indeed, Article 72 even states, without any qualification whatsoever, that "each Union Republic shall retain the right freely to secede from the U.S.S.R." Accordingly, a constitutional framework for the full assertion of national sovereignty has formally existed, almost inviting the increasingly assertive leaders of the non-Russian nations to take deliberate advantage of it.

Paradoxically, the expansion of the Soviet empire into Eastern Europe also helped to legitimate ideologically the national aspirations of the non-Russian Soviet peoples. As long as the Soviet Union was an isolated "socialist" state, Moscow could claim that the union was necessary to preserve "the sacred gains of socialism." But once other communist states had come into existence, even communist non-Russians could claim that there was no longer any doctrinal reason why, for example, a separate but still communist Estonia could not now exist outside the Soviet Union-as was the case with the communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe. The spread of the Kremlin's power beyond Soviet frontiers thus provided additional ideological ammunition, sustaining the national ambitions of the Soviet non-Russian communists.

Finally, the manifest failure of the Soviet system more generally discredited not only the official ideology but especially the practical consequences of the so-called union. Most non-Russians increasingly came to view the very existence of the centralized Soviet state as the cause of their relative impoverishment. In that context, the progressive self-emancipation of Eastern Europe from Moscow's control exercised a special attraction, particularly for those contiguous non-Russian nations located at the western end of the Soviet Union. For them, the gradualist strategy of the Polish independent trade union Solidarity in contesting communist rule served as an organizational model for their own grass-roots mass movements-the Popular Fronts-that have sprung up in several of the non-Russian republics.

Five broad stages can be discerned in the expanding process of non-Russian national awakening and growing self-assertion. In the first stage, nationalism typically has tended to focus on demands for the preservation in some significant fashion of the national language, which represent an almost instinctive desire for national self-preservation from progressive Russification. In the second stage, initial success in linguistic self-preservation then normally generates a wider insistence on the promotion of distinctive national cultural autonomy. In the third, this prompts demands for national economic self-determination. In the fourth, the foregoing combination then quite naturally fosters a struggle for national political autonomy. In the fifth, non-Russian nationalism is but a step away from openly proclaimed dreams of national sovereignty.

Generalizing boldly, the politically aroused peoples in the Baltic republics, independent between the end of World War I and 1940, and in Georgia, a historical kingdom prior to the nineteenth century and briefly independent from 1918 until 1923, are now moving from the fourth to the fifth stage. The extremely important Ukraine, which numbers more than 50 million people, has at least reached the second stage, though political winds in Kiev and especially in Lvov point clearly toward the fourth and beyond. Byelorussia and Moldavia are still in the first or second stage. Most of the Soviet central Asian republics-with their Islamic self-confidence heightened by the Soviet debacle in neighboring Afghanistan-are moving from the third stage into the fourth.

In all of the non-Russian republics, however, national passions are being unleashed. Russification is being openly denounced-occasionally in turbulent demonstrations-in literally every non-Russian republic. National-minded elites who do not hide their desire for eventual sovereignty already dominate the Baltic republics politically. Most of the other republics are experiencing similar pressures from below, generated largely by their national intelligentsias. Moreover, intense interethnic violence has also broken out in hundreds of localities, with some thousands killed in communal clashes. It has been officially admitted that hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled national persecution, with, for instance, 350,000 Armenians and Azerbaijanis made homeless by national strife. In all likelihood, the problem will get worse, rather than better.

The national issue has become the central dilemma of Soviet political life, overshadowing even the economic crisis. It affects and vastly complicates almost every dimension of the political and economic perestroika. It expresses itself in a variety of ways. It manifests itself-as in the Baltic republics-in the peaceful constitutional struggle for the devolution of power from Moscow and even in unilateral legislation mandating the termination of central control over national resources. It explodes periodically-as in Kazakhstan's Alma Ata in 1986 or Georgia's Tbilisi in 1989-into violence directed at Great Russian domination, with strong overtones of a national liberation struggle against the foreign "occupiers." It takes the form-as in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and elsewhere-of bloody interethnic pogroms, unleashing the most primitive passions. And it infects those scores of smaller peoples who do not even have their own nominal Soviet republics, prompting further demands for the national diversification of what is rapidly becoming the Soviet "Disunion."

Last but by no means least, all of the foregoing is made even more combustible by the extensive commingling of the Russians and non-Russians. With some 65 million people living outside their ethnic homelands and thus in potentially hostile environments, the grim possibility has been placed on history's agenda that Russia's empire, Marx's "prison of nations," could now spin out of control, becoming a battlefield of nations.

Such an outcome would be particularly ominous for the Great Russians. Their empire has expanded over the last several hundred years at a rate equivalent to approximately one Vermont (or Holland) per year. In the process, Russia has become the world's largest and-until now-most enduring multinational empire, controlling by far the largest piece of global real estate. Yet for the foreseeable future, the Great Russians now face the unpleasant dilemma that either a policy of repression of non-Russians or a policy of acquiescent passivity poses an acute threat to their own well-being.

To complicate matters even further, a painful nexus exists between the challenge of East European nationalism and the escalating aspirations of the Soviet non-Russians. The Kremlin would not find it easy to separate a policy of domestic repression of non-Russians from a policy of toleration for the East European nationalisms. It would be even more difficult to continue the domestic perestroika while engaging in repression of the non-Russian half of the Soviet population. Indeed, much of the recent national self-assertion within the Soviet Union was stimulated by the successful precedents set by Solidarity and the Catholic Church in Poland. Repression of non-Russian nationalism within the Soviet Union, combined with toleration of it within the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe, would mean that the external contagion would persist, with the emboldened Poles and Hungarians publicly voicing their support for the suppressed non-Russians, and perhaps with such Soviet "allies" providing political beachheads for continued national agitation within the Soviet Union.

Thus a domestic crackdown would require some turning of the screws in Eastern Europe, even if short of direct intervention. Any such effort would entail real costs, political and economic. Moscow would have to channel its energies and resources into intimidating and bribing the East Europeans, and would have to do so without precipitating highly disruptive outbreaks in the region itself. And the last thing the Kremlin could now wish would be a conjunction of East European and internal Soviet national disorders.

The domestic consequences of the physical suppression of the non-Russians would also entail high costs. A policy of repression would have to be based on intensified Great Russian chauvinism. That, in turn, would breed even more widespread anti-Russian sentiments. Moreover, any attempt at reimposition of centralized Muscovite control would be met with political and perhaps even physical resistance. The non-Russians are no longer the pliant and illiterate peoples colonized by the tsars or the decapitated victims of Stalinism. They now have their own national intelligentsias and their own aroused students and, above all, their own awakened sense of national identity.

Repressive measures would require severe enforcement. That would be likely to jeopardize any serious pursuit of economic decentralization. As a practical matter, effective repression would require enhanced concentration of political power in Moscow, and that would not be compatible with continued economic decentralization. Since even the most modest scenarios of a successful perestroika hinge on enhanced economic activity, especially among the non-Russians, some of whom are the most productive contributors to the Soviet economy, it follows that domestic repression would simply kill perestroika. In effect, repression to preserve the empire would require self-abnegation by the Great Russians. They would have to forsake any dreams of greater democratization and of enhanced prosperity for themselves. The brutal fact is that their empire can be maintained only as an impoverished Great Russian national garrison state.

The prospects for the Great Russians, however, are even grimmer if the process of national self-assertiveness continues dynamically to percolate in the fashion of the last two or three years. If the Kremlin acquiesces while the economic perestroika falters, the non-Russians will become even more insistent on retaining the tangible fruits of their labors, to the disadvantage of the Great Russians. Ironically, to the extent that perestroika prospers, it is likely that the non-Russians-and not the Great Russians-will be its principal beneficiaries. It is among the Balts, the Jews, the Georgians, the Armenians, the Uzbeks and others that the traditions of commerce, entrepreneurship and private initiative have been least suffocated by the Soviet experience. The non-Russian peoples have also partaken much less in the Great Russian tradition of subordinating economic activity to state control. These subjective factors, combined with the objective reality of the greater access of the non-Russian regions to world trade and also the relatively greater concentration of natural resources in their lands, make it quite probable that a successful perestroika would leave the non-Russians considerably better off than the Great Russians.

In fact, stripped of any real degree of effective control over the non-Russian lands, the Great Russian plurality could find itself, quite literally, in a genuinely serious crisis of biological survival. The non-Russians have become not only more assertive but also more prolific. Demographic trend lines indicate quite clearly that the Russians are becoming outnumbered. The approximately 50 million Soviet Muslims currently produce as many babies per year as do the 145 million Russians.

To make matters worse, the Great Russian homeland lacks commercial outlets to the world's oceans, adequate arable land and natural resources. It is also cursed by an inhospitable climate and lacks clearly defined natural or ethnic boundaries. Thus any widespread implementation of national separatism would inevitably produce bloody collisions, not to speak of the mind-boggling prospect of an impoverished Russia having to accommodate millions of Great Russian expellees from the non-Russian lands.


The Great Russians therefore have no choice but to conclude that they are doomed to some form of relatively intimate coexistence with their neighbors. However, the two likely policy responses to the rising difficulties of that coexistence-repression of the challenge, or reactive evasion of the problem in the hope of preserving the essence of the status quo-offer true Hobson's choices. The first policy would retain for the Russians effective political power, but engage them in prolonged and costly efforts to crush national liberation movements, both within the currently Soviet nations and perhaps even within some of the East European ones. The Soviet Union would thereby become a Northern Ireland writ large. A policy of brutal repression would probably also help to rekindle the cold war, guaranteeing for the Russians continued poverty.

The second option-that of largely reactive maneuvering to preserve political power and economic privilege-is unlikely to prevent the empire's fragmentation. In the absence of positive change, the Baltic republics would doubtless attempt to secede and to become somehow associated with the Scandinavian states. That might well lead to a subsequent effort at secession by Georgia, and also to rising demands in some of the central Asian republics for completely independent statehood. It would be only a matter of time before the Ukraine, and eventually even Byelorussia, followed the same route. Russia would suddenly be thrust back to its frontiers of the mid-seventeenth century. The process would most certainly be a bloody one, potentially reminiscent of the Indian-Pakistani population transfers of the late 1940s, perhaps with some painful similarities to the Lebanese tragedy of the 1980s.

What real policy choices do the Great Russians then have, given current dynamics? Quite naturally, they would prefer to maintain the status quo, at a minimum of cost. If forced to choose, they are more likely to opt for all-out repression, though preferably as a last resort. With Great Russian nationalism on the rise, that option is bound to gain more adherents in the near future, especially as acquiescence begins to look more and more dangerous. There is already again much talk among the Russians of the unique mission of their nation, with its historically fated leadership role. At the same time, their concern and sense of frustration are likely to grow as national turbulence intensifies and as the communist ideology-which has masked Moscow's rule with a convenient veneer of transnational rhetoric-continues to fade.

A mood of desperation among some Russians has already surfaced in the course of the sessions of the new Congress of People's Deputies. Speaking in early June 1989, one deputy, V. G. Rasputin, a writer, evoked the memory of the great prerevolutionary tsarist prime minister, Stolypin, in castigating non-Russian speakers with a paraphrase of his famous words: "You, sirs, need great upheavals-we need a great country." To the applause of the deputies, Rasputin charged that the alleged "chauvinism and blind pride of Russians are but fabrications of those who are playing upon your national sentiments, respected brothers." Lamenting the lack of gratitude among the non-Russians for the sacrifices made on their behalf by the Russian people, he asked:

Would it perhaps be better for Russia to leave the union. . . ? We still have a few natural and human resources left, our power has not yet withered away. We could then utter the word 'Russian' and talk about national self-consciousness without the fear of being labeled nationalistic. . . . We would be able to gather the people together into a unified spiritual body.

Again, the Russian deputies responded with applause, and many would doubtless also applaud a repressive effort to sustain the Great Russian empire.

For the time being, however, the Great Russians in the Kremlin are most likely to strive to preserve the status quo by some combination of manipulative repression, selective accommodation and limited constitutional reform. The first involves the continued application of the tried and true policy of divide et impera, playing off one non-Russian nation against another, with Moscow acting as arbiter and protector and even using some nationals as enforcers of its will against others. The second entails some specific concessions to the more established and cohesive national republics, in the hope that their aspirations will thereby be satisfied, but without setting off a system-wide chain reaction. That has already happened with respect to the Baltic republics, which are gaining real autonomy. Such preferential treatment for some could be coupled with intensified suppression of the geopolitically crucial Ukrainian and Byelorussian nations, including even the arrest and exile of the nationalist leaders. Finally, Moscow is planning some changes in the existing constitution, to enhance the real powers of the non-Russian entities, especially in the socioeconomic realm.

Nonetheless, it is more than doubtful that any of these measures will suffice either in resolving or in containing the dynamics of national awakening within the Soviet Union. The old empire is just no longer tenable. The fact is that the status quo, even in some modified fashion, will no longer satisfy the national aspirations of the nationally awakened non-Russians. They may not all be in the same stage of national development, they may not be able to coalesce against Moscow, and they may have different demands and even conflicting goals (notably territorial ones). But their nationalism cannot any more be squared with continued Great Russian political and economic domination, even if masked and made somewhat gentler.

Moreover, as already noted, the internal problem is being compounded by the national self-assertion of the East Europeans. Their success has had, and will continue to have, a direct impact on popular attitudes in the Baltic republics, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Georgia. Central Asia has also been fired up by the almost parallel cases of successful Iranian and Afghan national and religious defiance of the superpowers. All of that creates a conundrum of problems, linking closely the threat of East European Balkanization with the potential for Soviet Lebanization, thereby vastly complicating Russia's imperial crisis.


The West cannot much longer remain passive on this issue. A great historic drama is in the process of unfolding-and it can have either benign or malevolent international consequences. The stark reality is that the Soviet Union can either remain a Great Russian empire or move toward a multinational democracy. But it cannot do both. Moreover, an imperial Russia is likely to be a militaristic and expansive Russia, whether its ideology is Marxist or simply chauvinistic. It will not even be able to tolerate freedom for the East Europeans, out of fear of domestic contagion.

However, a beleaguered Russia, hesitantly pursuing democratization while reluctantly conceding freedom to its non-Russians, is likely to plunge, together with several of the non-Russian nations, into protracted ethnic violence. Thus, for the sake of European stability, neither the Balkanization of Eastern Europe and the Lebanization of the Soviet Union on the one hand, nor the reassertion of Great Russian imperialism on the other, represent desirable outcomes.

For the moment, silence on the part of the West may seem to be the better part of wisdom. In any case, it is certainly more tempting-and easier-to evade this complex issue than to face it. Even worse than ignoring the problem is the occasional wringing of hands over the passing of the "stability" that is said to have been inherent in the cold war competition between the two homogenous blocs. That stability-such as it was-was historically artificial. It was derived from the geopolitical and ideological collision between the two superpowers. The fading of the Soviet Union as a comprehensive rival to the United States-with Moscow now only a power in the military realm-was bound to bring to the surface the aspirations of those nations that were subject to the most severe subordination. This development is to be welcomed, not deplored.

In any case, the easy way out will not remain open for long. As conflicts mount both in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, and particularly if Moscow gradually resorts to an increasingly repressive policy, the issue will impose itself on the attention of the West's public opinion and eventually even on its policymakers. At the minimum, a policy of repression will reinject the human rights issue into the still quite fragile East-West accommodation. Moreover, at some point the question will arise: by what standard does the West choose to support, for example, Polish independence but to ignore the cravings of, say, the Lithuanians or, before too long, of the Ukrainians, for their own national statehood?

Moreover, it is already evident that the focus of the great historical East-West contest is shifting eastward. It is useful to recall that during the 1940s and 1950s, and even into the 1960s, the political struggle between the East and the West was waged largely west of the dividing line in Europe. It was a struggle over the future of France and Italy, with their Communist parties playing an important role. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was relatively free to consolidate its hold over Eastern Europe.

History's dilemmas will now be played out east of the central European dividing line. For the next decade, the critical question in Europe will be the fate of Eastern Europe, whether it will succeed in eventually rejoining the rest of Europe, thereby emancipating itself fully from Soviet control. Into the next century, it is also now likely that Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the Ukraine will be the theaters of political contest-reflecting the simultaneous fading of communism as an ideology and of Russia as an imperial power.

It is therefore timely for the West to formulate its own general approach on this large issue before national turmoil in the Soviet world begins to undermine the East-West relationship as a whole. The West's attitude should reflect the norms that have gained universal acceptance in our age and should aim at creating arrangements that benefit the peoples swept up by the ground swell of national feelings. It should emphasize that the West does not seek the fragmentation either of Eastern Europe or of the Soviet Union but rather wishes to facilitate the historically significant process of transforming ongoing repressive political arrangements into more voluntary and cooperative relationships.

More specifically, for Eastern Europe, the West should stress its readiness to work out a long-term program of gradual association with the European Community for those East European countries prepared to adopt internal pluralism as their basic mode of social organization. Some forms of intermediate status should also be worked out, so that the East Europeans can be gradually introduced into the larger patterns of European cooperation. Membership in the Council of Europe for Poland and Hungary could be the first steps.

In the meantime, the West should also stress that more limited East European or central European cooperative arrangements are in themselves desirable. For example, Hungary and Austria are already working together on the joint Vienna-Budapest World's Fair scheduled for 1992, and further economic cooperation between them seems feasible. Such cooperation might extend also to Yugoslavia, where certainly Croatia and Slovenia would be receptive. Much closer relations-perhaps eventually even of a confederative character-between Poland and Czechoslovakia would certainly have economically and politically stabilizing effects in central Europe, and they should be explicitly encouraged. Institutionalized Polish-Czechoslovak cooperation would create a stronger unit in the vulnerable area between Germany and Russia, and thus contribute to greater central European stability. Similarly, at some future point, new forms of Balkan regional economic cooperation could be encouraged, so that the fading of communism is not followed by the surfacing of belligerent nationalisms.

The Council of Europe and the European Community could also make an important contribution by offering to assist the creation of a central European program for ecological salvation. The ecological crisis in the area is grave. The Polish-Czechoslovak-East German industrial triangle is the world's most polluted region. Bitter disputes are breaking out among the states of the region regarding responsibility and liability for the rapidly spreading havoc. National hostility and ecological devastation can feed on each other. Thus, genuine regional cooperation is urgently needed, and West European institutions could take the lead in facilitating it.

In recent years, several Southeast Asian nations developed a cooperative association-ASEAN-despite their relatively intense nationalisms, old quarrels and great geographical separation. Surely, then, it is not utopian to urge the East-central Europeans, who can interact so much more easily, to do likewise. Given their historical vulnerability to intrusion by stronger neighbors, and given the potentially destructive effects of the national conflicts between them, the advantages of wider regional cooperation should not be entirely lost upon them.

Eventually, in a more cooperative central Europe, the emergence of some all-German confederational arrangement might become possible, thus providing a solution to the legitimate desire of the Germans for national self-determination and relief for the legitimate fears of Germany's neighbors of a reunited, powerful Germany. The division of Germany can best be resolved within such a broader, and thus more reassuring, European framework.

The reassociation of the two German states could entail some special security provisions, designed to alleviate the fears of Germany's eastern and western neighbors. For example, reunification through confederation could be combined with a special arrangement providing for the continued presence on German soil of military forces from the existing two alliances for an agreed period of time-say, twenty years. In other words, the political self-determination of the Germans-a significant change in the existing situation-would not be tantamount to an immediate upheaval in the existing security situation. This would make the satisfaction of legitimate German aspirations less threatening.

Such an arrangement could also become the foundation for an all-European system of security, designed to reduce the risk that the wider processes of change in central Europe might lead to a sudden imbalance in the European order. The best formula would probably be a joint NATO-Warsaw Pact agreement regarding the reunification of Germany (subject to the special security provisions outlined in the preceding paragraph) with the two alliances thereby becoming joint guarantors of the ongoing geopolitical realities, including existing borders, but with the Warsaw Pact no longer serving as an instrument of ideological imposition. In other words, for example, a noncommunist Poland or Hungary might still be a member of the Warsaw Pact, but for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons. Such an arrangement would also help to mitigate the danger of any renewal of old territorial conflicts, especially in Eastern Europe.

None of this would be a panacea, resolving once and for all the national dilemmas of the region. But it is time for Western leaders to start outlining in more detail the democratic vision of the eventual organizational shape of post-communist Europe so that the continent's recovery from the traumas of this century is relatively stable. Even very general and quite visionary formulations can have the positive effect of defining constructive channels for the changes already under way and thus of lessening the danger that such changes might assume destructive forms.


A constructive vision of the future is similarly needed for the Soviet Union. Here, too, the West can help, both by articulating more explicitly its perspective on the painful dilemmas confronting almost all of the nations inhabiting what is currently still a Great Russian empire, and by indicating Western willingness to assist tangibly a positive process of basic reforms. Surely, some sort of peaceful accommodation among the different Soviet nations is preferable either to brutal Russian repression or increasingly bloody violence. The West should, therefore, not be shy in publicly stating that it favors the eventual transformation of the Soviet Union-which in reality is a Great Russian empire-into a genuinely voluntary confederation or commonwealth.

A politically appealing vision inevitably must challenge existing reality. But a vision is necessary to impose order on dynamic change that otherwise might become chaos. It is, therefore, not utopian but actually realistic to try to define new formulas for the increasingly crisis-ridden Soviet Disunion. Moreover, given the intense admiration of all things American now so fashionable among the politically articulate Soviets, it behooves Americans to proffer concrete suggestions for how to alleviate the intensifying Soviet inter-national conflicts through deliberate adoption of confederational arrangements.

More specifically, as the Soviets grapple with their problems, they would be well advised to examine the possible relevance of some multinational solutions adopted and practiced in the West. For example, Canada offers both an excellent internal and external model. Internally, the status of Quebec might have some relevance for those Soviet nations that choose not to secede; for some, externally, the economic arrangements between Canada and the United States could provide guidelines for a possible post-secession accommodation. Some of the emerging institutions within Western Europe also contain useful lessons in genuine cooperation combined with national sovereignty. Notably absent in all such arrangements is the existence of a monopolistic, disciplined and doctrinal ruling party controlled by a single national group. Hence the question of the eventual dispersal on a national basis of the existing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) will almost inevitably have to surface in the course of any truly serious Soviet discussions of the national issue.

In any case, a genuine confederation or commonwealth would be the best option for everyone concerned: the Russians, most of the non-Russians and certainly the outside world. It is, in fact, the only option that can combine some degree of continued unity with democracy. For the Russians, it would mean that democracy and prosperity would no longer be impossible goals, as the Russians would no longer have to bear the consequences of being the oppressors of others. For the non-Russians, it would provide genuine political and economic power within their homelands, but without the violence and the conflicts that would be the inherent concomitants of any effort to disentangle the existing ethnic and territorial mosaic. For the outside world, a genuinely pluralistic Eurasian commonwealth, instead of the Russian-dominated Soviet Disunion, would inherently be a much less centralized, less militaristic, and therefore less imperially expansive state.

A real confederation, furthermore, would have the healthy effect of severing the mystical connection between Russia as a nation-state and Russia as an imperial entity. It would demythologize Great Russian nationalism by transforming Russians from masters to partners. A division of labor between Moscow and Petrograd, with one serving as the confederational and the other as the national capital, might also help symbolically to focus Russian loyalties on a national state of their own, with its separate national capital, rather than on some supranational divine or ideological mission.

The transformation of the de facto centralized Soviet Union into a confederation would also require basic changes in the role and organization of the ruling CPSU. Its Leninist structure and discipline are fundamentally incompatible with the functioning of a decentralized confederation. At the very least, the formation of separate communist parties within the national republics, as well as of noncommunist political organizations, would have to be permitted. It is noteworthy that the Lithuanians are already spearheading a drive in that direction.

A true confederation or commonwealth could also embrace a greater variety of socioeconomic systems than is feasible under the existing centralized Soviet system. Some non-Russian republics would be likely to shed rather quickly the last vestiges of the communist planned economy and to adopt some forms of political pluralism. Others, notably Russia itself, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, might prefer to retain some form of statist "socialism." All probably could retain the term "soviet" for the confederation or commonwealth, since the word "soviet" does not imply any specific ideological content but is merely the Russian word for council. ("Soviet Union" literally means "Councillar Union.")

Would such an outcome satisfy the aroused nationalisms of the non-Russian peoples? Probably not all of them, though for some it might be a preferable option to the pains of disengagement and to the consequences of becoming suddenly vulnerable to hostile neighbors. A genuinely decentralized commonwealth or confederation could certainly assure the participating nations not only cultural but real economic and political self-determination, subject to some common reserved powers for a jointly shared central government. A genuine confederation could even offer economic benefits, and also some security advantages, that complete independence might not provide. Hence it could be an attractive option for some of the nations currently dominated by the Kremlin and the Great Russians.

But some of the non-Russian nations may still choose to opt out. They are, however, more likely to insist on complete secession and independence if the alternative is the existing, or an only slightly modified, Soviet Union. Secession by even one nation is also much more likely to be contagious in a Russian-dominated Soviet Union than in a genuine confederation. A decentralized Eurasian confederation, no longer dominated by the Great Russians, might be a less unacceptable arrangement.

Nonetheless, it is almost a certainty that some non-Russian nations, notably the Baltic ones, will continue to seek complete independence-a status they enjoyed until their incorporation into the Soviet Union through Soviet-Nazi collusion. Such aspirations are certainly legitimate and deserving of Western public sympathy. The West's public opinion would not be true to its own principles-to its commitment to self-determination and to respect for human rights-if it was unsympathetic, or even merely indifferent, to the cravings of the Baltic peoples or others for national independence. And that aspiration is particularly not to be denied to peoples that are genuine nations, that have their own history, language and defined political identity.

Moscow should, therefore, provide for the option of a formal plebiscite to determine whether a national people desires to secede, especially since the current Soviet constitution acknowledges the right of secession to republics. However, even formal secession need not mean complete rupture. Secession by nations that might opt for genuine independence could be made conditional on treaty-based associate status with a Soviet Confederation-especially in economic cooperation and perhaps even in some security arrangements.

The West's actual political response to efforts at secession from the Soviet Union should, therefore, be derived from a careful and prudent assessment of what is actually transpiring within the Soviet Union on the admittedly difficult national issue. After all, the Soviet Union could soon be retrenching instead of reforming, reestablishing centralized imperial rule in which Great Russian dominion is masked by communist phraseology. The West could not remain silent were police and military units to arrest Baltic or other national leaders, suppress with lethal force peaceful national demonstrations (as already has happened in Georgia) and in effect reconsolidate an empire by brutal force.

If such a trend should become clearly dominant-and currently it does appear that the Brezhnev doctrine is alive and well mostly for the Soviet Union itself-the West's commitment to human rights will dictate a policy response that, in effect, will be tantamount to external support for the non-Russian aspirations. Even if Western governments chose to be more circumspect, much of the democratic world's public opinion would be outraged. The countless private organizations that reflect it will become more heavily engaged in supporting the victims of the Kremlin's heavy hand. The international consequences for the Soviet Union would be highly negative. Moscow would be ostracized and sharply criticized-as should be the case, if the West in fact stands for its professed ideals.

However, the West's political response to secessionism should be more tempered if the Soviet Union does become engaged in a bona fide effort to redress fundamentally the existing national inequities. If demonstrably serious reforms are transforming existing Russian imperial rule into a genuinely multinational structure, and if the non-Russian nations are gaining effective control over their own states and thus producing a true confederation or commonwealth, the West should do more than merely applaud. It should then tangibly help that experiment.

The existing Soviet Union is not only an imperial Russian state but also largely an underdeveloped society. America, Western Europe and Japan have the means to help the peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union to undo their primitive poverty-a poverty maintained by the statist centralism inherent in Russian imperialism and communist dogma. A decentralized confederation would be far more likely to generate genuine social innovation, and it would certainly pose less of a threat to the outside world. That outside world, in turn, would therefore be well advised to assist tangibly any such institutionalization of pluralism through credits, joint ventures and more trade. The emergence of a pluralist Soviet Confederation would mean the end of the cold war, of the Russian imperial drive, and of the related enormous military expenditures. All would thus benefit.

Admittedly, much of that may still lie in the distant future. But given the accelerating velocity of history, the West should focus on the issue and also take some modest initial steps. One concrete action would be for the United States to double the $15-million annual budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, for the explicit purpose of assisting democratic national movements in the Soviet Union. Those Balts, Ukrainians, Georgians, Tajiks, Russians and others who are striving to create new relations of mutual respect and equality among their nations deserve encouragement and support. Similarly, it makes sense to encourage Western economic ventures, vastly increased academic exchanges and diplomatic contacts, particularly with those non-Russian nations that have shown evident determination to throw off outdated imperial structures.


The specter that haunts the Russians in the Kremlin is that of nationalism-both within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. The only constructive response to that condition is for the Russian people to be given the opportunity to shed their messianic complexes-either that of a Third Rome or of some "internationalist" Leninist mission-and to accommodate themselves to the necessity of coequal cohabitation with other nations. After three hundred years of almost continuous expansion, but now increasingly showing symptoms of imperial fatigue, the Russian people would be the principal beneficiaries of such a change in their national ethos.

The West can help especially the Russians at this crucial historical juncture by not only articulating positive visions of a confederated but nonthreatening Germany, of a regionally more cooperative Eastern Europe engaged in all-European institutions, and of a post-imperial Russia within a Soviet Confederation, but also by indicating its readiness to assist very tangibly the translation of such visions into a mutually beneficial reality. Over the years, the West has propagated pluralism, democracy and the market system as the superior social combination-while the Soviet propagandists derided these notions. Yet today these ideas dominate even the Soviet discussions of perestroika. Similarly, the West should now take the lead in advocating open and voluntary confederational arrangements as the only solution to the potentially lethal challenges of nationalism in the emerging post-communist era.

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
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski is Professor at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of The Johns Hopkins University and Counsellor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. From 1977 to 1981 he served as President Carter's National Security Adviser.
  • More By Zbigniew Brzezinski