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Soviet Union Busting

SOVIET Georgians' overwhelmingly "aye" vote for independence on Sunday should not be overlooked amid stories on fighting in Iraq and infighting in Moscow. Georgia's vote was the next shoe to fall for Mikhail Gorbachev and his fracturing Union. And it fell heavily, with over 98 percent of voters wanting independence. In some ways, Georgia portends more trouble for Moscow than the Baltics. Momentum is building for republics that haven't had the high profile of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Mr. Gorbachev ruled Georgia's vote illegal, but everyone's winking at that.

Along with Georgia and the Baltics, Armenia and Moldavia refused to vote in Gorbachev's Union referendum on March 17. They'll profit from Georgia's example. Other restless republics - Byelorussia and the Ukraine, for example - can use the Georgian vote to bargain for looser union ties with Moscow. No doubt they will try to make agreements with both Gorbachev and his challenger, Boris Yeltsin.

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The Georgia vote is also an attempt to "correct history." The Baltics made their case for separation based on the illegitimacy of the pact Hitler made with Stalin in 1941. The Georgian vote is aimed at reversing a union treaty Stalin engineered in 1924, which forcibly put Georgia under his control. The Georgians want to restore their own 1918 act of independence following World War I, which set forth their autonomy from what is now the Russian Republic.

The situation is complicated by boiling tensions among the 60,000 Muslim Ossetians living in Georgia near the Russian border. They do not want to become minority vassals in a nationalized Georgia. They want to remain in the Soviet Union, and thus want independence from Georgia - which Georgia, paradoxically, is not willing to grant. Some 40 people have died in vicious fighting.

The prickly situation was created by Stalin who purposefully wove minority groups and ethnic Russians together in the republics. Thus Moscow can intervene to "save" them.

As in the Baltics, what must be weighed anew is the issue of the rights of a dominant nationality versus the rights of a minority.

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