The New Soviet Disunion

Expect a lot of lofty rhetoric in Moscow when six of the 15 Soviet republics take part this week in the ceremonial signing of the Treaty on the Union of Sovereign States. To heighten the dramatic effect, President Mikhail Gorbachev will assemble the signatories in St. George's Hall, a colonnaded Kremlin chamber reserved for the signing of important international treaties. But don't be taken in by the pomp and circumstance. The long-awaited treaty provides no clear, lasting answers to the two great questions at the heart of the Soviet Union's identity crisis: now that communism has been discredited as its organizing principle, does the vast empire assembled by the czars and hammered into a modern state by Lenin and Stalin retain any legitimate reason for being? And if not, what is the best way to redesign relations among its constituent parts?

Until those questions are answered, the possibility of breakup or civil war remains real. "This treaty signing is like a wedding of people who you know don't get along," said Feliks Mamikonyan, the Armenian "ambassador" in Moscow. "On the day of the wedding, everybody tries to look happy. But you know it's going to end in divorce."

The main immediate effect of the treaty will be to bolster Gorbachev's standing among Western governments, which have told him they want to see signs of stability in his country before they sink any money into his economy. On his recent visit to Moscow, President Bush did his best to avoid offending either Gorbachev or proud nationalists such as Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the leadership of the Ukraine. Even as power inevitably seeps away from Moscow, Washington remains determined to help minimize chaos in a country that still has thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at U.S. territory.

The United States is already under fire for its lukewarm support of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Washington is caught between the moral imperative of supporting independence for the Baltic States, whose annexation by Stalin it never recognized, and the political imperative of promoting Soviet stability. "The administration would prefer to have the Baltics issue disappear," says Stephen Sestanovich of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And if it won't disappear, to treat it with ritual incantations of support." But Bush's task will grow far more difficult as the republics begin forming complex alliances among themselves once the Union Treaty is signed.

The reality that bedevils Washington's policy-and that the treaty attempts to paper over-is that Gorbachev has failed to create a new consensus among the Soviet peoples. It's not clear that anyone could, given the intense national conflicts which set the members of the empire against Moscow, and one another. An influential minority of the population wants the Soviet Union to remain as it is, by force if necessary. These hard-liners consist of most leaders of the Communist Party, the armed forces and the KGB, along with a relatively small segment of the population, mainly Russians.

But that's about it. The vast majority of the Soviet people recognizes that the union is dead-they just can't agree on what should come next. Russia, the largest and richest republic, is headed by a president, Boris Yeltsin, who enjoys considerable popularity and wants to be top dog in any new system. But Gorbachev isn't about to stand aside and become the "English monarch" that the republics are encouraging him to become. The Armenians and the Azerbaijanis are still at each other's throats in the Caucasus Mountains. Meanwhile, half a dozen republics (map), including the Baltic States, Georgia and the mighty Ukraine, are either determined not to join the union or unable to decide what to do.

At best, the new Union Treaty creates a scale on which to weigh the shifting balance of power within the Soviet Union. The central government retains control over foreign policy and security, but the republics may open diplomatic missions, sign treaties and lay claim to their share of the Soviet Union's national reserves of gold, diamonds and foreign currency. The center will maintain the only army and control the country's nuclear weapons, but the sources of funding will be unclear. Moscow may effectively have no source of tax income beyond what the republics decide to give it, a "fixed percentage" from the republics' revenues that may be renegotiated every year.

The treaty's contradictions start in the very first clause: each republic is a sovereign state, it says, and the U.S.S.R. is also a sovereign state. Who's the boss? Until that's settled, nothing else can be solved, either-not the "war of laws" between Moscow and the republics, not the struggle over state property, not the confusion of authority that is eating away at the economy and scaring off potential foreign investors. The treaty is vague about provisions for leaving the Soviet Union. And it doesn't provide any realistic guidelines for dealing with those republics that don't sign it.

Yeltsin's agreement to sign the treaty has brought him criticism from an unexpected source: his leftist allies. "Is there any sense in marrying off our fair Russia so hastily to an 'old man' who's trying his best to look young.?" wrote historian Vladimir Panteleyev in Rossiskaya Gazeta last week. Liberal deputies in the Russian parliament charged Yeltsin had betrayed them by failing to submit the final draft of the treaty to them for discussion. To refute charges of a sellout, Yeltsin announced the Russian government would take control over the republic's enormous oil and gas production and triple prices in order to bring energy earnings closer into line with world prices. Other republics angrily responded that higher energy prices would send inflationary ripples through the economy, and they threatened to retaliate with price increases on their own products.

The Russian liberals worry most of all that the new union may turn its back on Europe. Most of the treaty's signatories are Muslim republics with an authoritarian political tradition. Last week four Central Asian republics and Kazakhstan, plus the Turkic republic of Azerbaijan as an observer, met in Tashkent to discuss their common interests. Though they made no threatening declarations against the European Soviet Union, the very fact of their gathering has made the rest of the country distinctly nervous. " geopolitical situation for Russia, and indeed for Europe, could prove very unhealthy," said radical historian Yuri Afanasyev. "If the Ukraine does not join [the union], the situation becomes more unstable and dangerous."

Ironically, the one factor forcing the republics together may be the economic crisis that helped foment independence movements in the first place. Much as the East European countries, having thrown off the communist yoke, rediscovered their dependence on cheap Soviet energy supplies and the eager Soviet market, several republics now are beginning to realize they can't afford to break all of their ties with Moscow overnight. Moscow has threatened to treat republics that don't sign as if they were foreign states, so the Baltic republics are pursuing bilateral treaties with other republics that would maintain beneficial trading terms. The collection of 15 fractious republics-including even the Baltics-may well be fated to some kind of union. "We got into this dead end together," sighs the "ambassador" from the republic of Moldova (formerly Moldavia) to Moscow, Ion Chebuk. "There's no way to get out of it independently." The Union Treaty is hardly the document that will govern the complex relations among the newly minted "sovereign states." But then, the process has only just begun.

A Soviet Crazy Quilt Despite intractable internal strife, Moscow is collecting signatories for its Union Treaty. Polish district in Lithuania wants to remain part of Soviet Union Seven Lithuanian border guards murdered by unknown assailants on July 31 Russian and Gagauz minorities claim right to sign Union Treaty despite Moldova's refusal Ossetian minority's demand for autonomy has resulted in bloody fighting with Georgian authorities Tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijans continue in Nagorno-Karabakh Russian minority in Estonia demands right to stay in Soviet Union Border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan disputed Armenian-Azerbaijani border disputed