ARE we doomed to stand by helplessly as more and more communities are engulfed in spiraling ethnic conflict? A television series scheduled to premier in the 11 time zones of the former Soviet Union Oct. 9 indicates that we are not: There is something we can do to make things better.
This TV series is "Both Sides Win," a co-production of the Russian State Television Company "Ostankino" and Common Ground Productions of Washington, D. C. The lead program of the series looks at the differences between Russia and Ukraine. The format is very different from that used in most Western-style public-affairs programming. In "Both Sides Win," Russian anchor Mikhail Svetlikhnyi actively presses his Ukrainian-nationalist and Russian-nationalist guests to identify areas of agreement, rather than co nflict, between their two communities.
Can such programming make a difference? I and my co-workers at the nonprofit group Search for Common Ground, which runs Common Ground Productions, are convinced that it can. For my part, I spent seven years in Lebanon in the late 1970s, seeing a seemingly "modern" society disintegrate into civil strife. I have watched this year as the same process took root in Yugoslavia. And I have worried that the flames of hate might leap into the heart of the former Soviet empire, leading toward the world's first nuc lear-armed civil war.
Russian-Ukrainian relations is one area where such a process could start. Since the Soviet empire fractured in August 1991, some Russian and Ukrainian nationalists have pursued heated campaigns against each other. Ukrainians have reveled in their independence after decades of what many view as oppression by Moscow. And many Russians have watched dismayed as Ukraine pursued claims to assets they traditionally viewed as theirs - from the Crimea peninsula to the Black Sea fleet.
There are troubling nuclear sub-themes, too. Under treaties concluded with the United States, the Soviet Union and its successor states promised to destroy large numbers of intermediate-range and long-range nuclear missiles. Many of these missiles have long been deployed inside Ukraine, but destruction is carried out at facilities in Russia that have long delays. Some Ukrainian nationalists have been reluctant to allow the missiles and their warheads to be transported to Russia.
No one believes that one TV program is going to resolve the tangle of issues between these two proud nations. But we hope "Both Sides Win" can mesh with other efforts to upgrade conflict-resolution capabilities in the region.
In the formerly Soviet lands, "might" has long made "right." Now, we hope that real negotiation, and the desire to find collaborative, nonviolent ways to resolve the many conflicts left from the days of empire, can start to become a habit of thought.
Regarding the Russia-Ukraine issue, the situation looks fairly hopeful. The national leaderships on both sides seem determined to resolve their differences through negotiation. (On both sides, semigovernmental TV companies collaborated with Common Ground Productions to produce footage for "Both Sides Win.") But on both sides, ultra-nationalists in the opposition seem poised to whip up hatred if the present leaders weaken.
David Shipler, a veteran correspondent who wrote a landmark book about his time in Russia, has pointed out both the up-side and the down-side of our present effort. "On the one hand, there is unique receptivity in the former Soviet Union to all ideas coming from the West, including ideas about conflict resolution. On the other hand, I still can't rule out the idea of overt armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine."
So the race is on. Will those Russians, Ukrainians, and others who believe that conflicts can be resolved without force prevail, and put into place the mechanisms that enable this to happen? Or will they lose hope?
There is only a limited amount even the best-intentioned outsiders can do. But I am deeply glad - given what I saw in Lebanon - that we can do something to make a difference.