Russification Is A Growing Concern For Soviet Republics
RUSSIAN Premier Ivan Silayev stood up before the Soviet parliament late on Wednesday and matter-of-factly read off the list of names of the men who are now running the Soviet government. Virtually all of them were Russians.Some minutes later, in the lobby downstairs, an irate deputy from the Central Asian republic of Tadzikistan encountered the visiting president of the Bashkir autonomous republic, a Muslim-populated region within Russia. "Doesn't that mean the Russians are dictating what to do?" she asked angrily. "Isn't that a nightmare?" "I'm afraid it's Russian chauvinism: Russification," Bashkir leader Murtaza Rakhimov replied. "That's the end for us," the deputy said gloomily. This conversation overheard in a Kremlin lobby is only one of many signs of the growing fear of Russian domination expressed since Russia, under the strong leadership of President Boris Yeltsin, emerged as the new de facto center of power after the failed hard-line coup last week. Tension between Russia and the Ukraine, the two most powerful republics in the union, is now the focus of these concerns. A Russian delegation on Wednesday rushed to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in an attempt to avert a crisis between the two republics. Last week's Ukrainian declaration of independence, followed by a Russian statement that it did not regard current borders as fixed in the event of secession, had triggered a verbal clash. The two sides agreed yesterday morning on a joint statement that appears, for now, to ease the crisis. The eight-point agreement, addressed to "subjects of the former Union," calls for all the republics to join in working out and signing an economic agreement. They agreed to promote democratic reforms and radical economic reforms, and to fulfill the international commitments of the Soviet Union, including arms-control treaties. In an attempt to calm fears about the formation of a Ukrainian army and the future status of Soviet nuclear weapons based there, the joint communique calls for creation of a system of collective security and pledges not to take any "unilateral decisions on military-strategic issues." The potential territorial conflict has been sidestepped for now with a reference to a Ukrainian-Russian agreement of last year which affirmed the "territorial integrity" of both sides. From a Russian point of view, this does not contradict previous statements, which Mr. Yeltsin reiterated to French radio on Wednesday, that if a republic leaves the union, a new treaty between independent states will have to be negotiated. The Ukrainians, however, have already indicated that they see the joint communique as acceptance of their present borders. "We interpret this as a confirmation of our territorial integrity after the Ukraine has seceded from the USSR," says Sergei Drachuk, spokesman for the nationalist Rukh movement, interviewed by telephone in Kiev. Arkady Volsky, a key figure in the four-man committee now running the Soviet government, told reporters on Wednesday that if the Ukraine secedes, the question of possession of the Crimea will arise. "Crimea was won by Russian warriors in wars with Tatar Khans," he said. "It is Russian territory originally," which was transferred to the Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in 1954. "I don't see why a gift like that should be permanent in a situation of secession." Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who headed the Soviet delegation to the talks, called the deal a "temporary measure to stabilize the situation," with further agreements needed. But Mr. Sobchak, speaking to the Soviet parliament yesterday, also acknowledged that the agreement signals the reduction of the central government and the parliament to a role of arbitrator between independent republics. "The former union has ceased to exist and there is no return to it," he said. An economic union along with a loose political confederation seems to be the only form of continuation of the Soviet Union. Under these circumstances, however, the apprehensions over Russia's role are likely to grow. The Russian-dominated Soviet state paid lip service to communist internationalism and the myth that the country was a voluntary union of states which had accepted a broader "Soviet" identity. That is disappearing in the anticommunist revolution now sweeping Russia. In its place, there is a vision of Russia leading the new democratic revolution. Even Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a fierce opponent of nationa lism, has not been immune to this imagery. "A huge opportunity is now offered for a unifying mission of Russia," he told the Russian parliament last week. "We, Russians, should fill this mission to the end," defending the Russian government against charges of empire-building. All this worries republican leaders such as Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. "Yes, the democratic forces have won," he told the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda yesterday. "The contribution of Muscovites, the Supreme Soviet [parliament] of Russia, and Yeltsin personally is great. However, we have sensed that the euphoria of victory begins to grow into the expansion of the victors. In the speeches of Russian leaders ... a messianic note can now be distinctively heard." "Yeltsin's team are throwing out statements such as 'Russia has always united all the peoples,' but it has not always been like that," says Viktor Lisitsky, a member of the Soviet parliament from a Russian-populated area of the Ukraine. "Yes, the Russian monarchy united a lot of people, but how did it unite the lands? With cruel and violent methods." While no one has yet accused Yeltsin of desiring to return to the autocracy of the Czars, there is no mistaking his increasing use of symbols and references to the pre-Bolshevik era. Speaking to a group of Russian emigres on Wednesday, Yeltsin called for a rebirth of "Mother Russia." "The collapse of the center does not mean the collapse of the country, and especially not of Russia," he reportedly told them.