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Long Arm of Russia Reaches Out, But Nation Battles to Hang Together

FIVE years after it crumbled from its own dead weight, the Soviet Union is stirring again under the rubble.

The Russian Communist Party, which now controls parliament and runs well ahead in presidential polls, has made restoration of the Soviet Union a top political priority during the run-up to the June presidential election.

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The Communists initiated an overwhelming vote in parliament March 15 to denounce the 1991 agreement that disintegrated the union into 15 separate nations. On March 17, they established the voluntary restoration of the Soviet Union as part of their presidential platform.

President Boris Yeltsin and virtually every president of every former Soviet country have denounced the vote in the Duma, parliament's lower house. It is seen as a provocation that only threatens the growing ties between the former Soviet states and challenges the legitimacy of existing government institutions - including the Duma itself.

If Russian nostalgia alone could put the Soviet Union back together again, then it would indeed rise from its ruins. Many Kazakstanis, Ukrainians, Armenians, and others also recall wistfully their higher living standards as Soviet citizens. The standard of living has fallen in every new country in the former Soviet Union except the three Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

But the invitation of the Russian Duma and the Russian Communist Party to join borders again is likely to find few takers.

Few of the leaders in any former Soviet country, except Belarus, are inclined to dissolve back into Moscow's political orbit. While the idea may evoke enthusiasm among the ethnically Russian cossacks on the steppes of Kazakstan, the newly empowered ethnic Kazaks show no interest in surrendering their nationhood.

The greatest practical difficulties to reunion might be for Russians themselves. The basic relationship among the republics was one where Russia tended to subsidize the others. That Russia could no longer afford this relationship is one important reason why the Soviet Union dissolved, says Eugene Rumer, a Moscow-based analyst for the Rand Corporation. Russia still has its own collapsed economy to rebuild.

Russia also has its hands full holding together as it is. It spent nearly 5 percent of its federal budget last year on its war to keep separatist Chechnya within the fold. No other region or autonomous republic within Russia is demanding outright independence at the moment, but the practical autonomy of regional governments is growing steadily.

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"Real independence is growing all the time," says Nicolai Petrov, a regional political analyst at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Moscow. Presidents, governors, and other leaders heading regional governments already frequently control the federal military and security forces in their regions, for example.

As recently as two years ago, several republics were moving toward claiming full sovereignty from Moscow, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Tuva, as well as some of Chechnya's neighbors in the Caucasus region. The leaders in those regions, however, have generally achieved a stability they don't want to upset now.

They have also watched the difficulties of Chechnya, says Sergei Artobolyevsky, director of the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a consultant to the Kremlin. They see not only the devastation Russian forces have loosed upon Chechnya, but also the difficulties Chechnya has in paying pensions, for example, except with Moscow's help.

President Yeltsin sees Chechen separatism and Communist demands for Soviet restoration both as essentially attacks on the legitimacy of the current Russian state, its institutions, and its Constitution.

Yeltsin argued in a statement to the upper chamber of parliament March 19 that according to the logic of the Duma vote, his presidency was the only legally valid institution of state authority, since he was elected president of the Russian Federation under the Soviet Constitution. The houses of parliament are creatures of the post-Soviet era that the Duma seeks to invalidate, Yeltsin warns.

The Russian Communists deny that they want any immediate abolishing of existing laws or institutions.

They argue that the 1991 agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union, formed under a 1922 agreement, had no legal basis without first amending the Soviet Constitution. They are also reaffirming a 1991 referendum in which 70 percent of Soviet voters favored a "renovated" Soviet Union over disintegration.

But the next step will be for the former republics to take, says Nicolai Bindyukov, a Duma deputy and Communist Party official. The Duma vote is an invitation, in effect, he says. The people of the republics can decide "if they want to live in a new union or in their own 'apartments,' " he says. "We are not going to restore the Soviet Union in the 1990s."

The concern among democratic-reform politicians, ironically, is that the Communist gambit could cause a negative reaction in Russia's neighbors and actually slow the integration of the former Soviet states.

"I'm very concerned," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States and member of a liberal democratic party. He hopes that Russians will not take the Duma vote seriously, but he fears some of Russia's neighbors will. Some of them could slow cooperation with Russia out of concern that Russia will carry it too far.

Ukranian President Leonid Kuchma is also worried about the Duma vote.

"This decision has provided a pretext for Eastern European countries, which earlier had only stated their intention to join NATO, to become more active," he said March 19 in Kiev. He reiterated, however, that Ukraine would stay outside the Atlantic alliance.

At this point, Russia is not even ready to take in Belarus, which has passed a referendum supporting reunion with Russia. The Russian parliament has voted for reunion. "It will be expensive and might be threatening to Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia," Mr. Igrunov says.

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