• U.S.

America Abroad: How to Keep Divorce from Leading to War

5 minute read
Strobe Talbott/Moscow

The Kremlin, once the seat and symbol of absolute power, now has the air of a museum, a sprawling, drafty memento mori of the old regime. The long corridors are eerily silent; the guards seem listless. The nameplates on most doors have been removed. Many rooms are not just empty; they seem abandoned. Boris Yeltsin has moved in, but a number of his advisers have stayed behind at the Russian Parliament to massage legislators who are restless — if not rebellious — over the price their constituents are paying for reform.

Real politics has come to Russia. Unfortunately, so has an economic catastrophe of epic proportions. Hence, everyone is a dissident. Several of Yeltsin’s former proteges and allies are turning against him, exploiting the widespread resentment of shortages and the fear of hyperinflation. The government, says an official, is printing a billion rubles a day. That figure makes “Weimar Russia” sound all too accurate as a description of what is happening here — and what could happen next.

Every bit as important as Russia’s economic crisis is its identity crisis. Now, in the dead of winter, when this country is turning a cold shower on the grimy, corrosive residue of 73 years of communism, it is also being asked to shed virtually overnight its centuries-old identity as the metropole of a multinational empire. That is not easy, especially in the case of Ukraine, which has been dominated by Moscow for more than 300 years. Most Russians haven’t accepted the idea of Ukraine as a separate country, not least because 20% of the population there is Russian. This is an emotional issue with roots both deep and broad, by no means confined to crazies like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who calls his party Liberal Democratic but who is actually a fascistic imperialist. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s new book, Rebuilding Russia, appeals to Ukrainians not to go their own way: “Brothers! We have no need of this cruel partition. The very idea comes from the darkening of minds brought on by the communist years.”

Vladimir Lukin, who is about to become ambassador to Washington, has impeccable reformist credentials: as a young journalist in Czechoslovakia in 1968, he bravely opposed the Soviet invasion. Now he is urging patience on the part of everyone — Ukrainians, Russians and outsiders. “An enlightened and balanced championship of both Russian and Ukrainian interests,” he says, “is the only weapon against Zhirinovsky and the extreme nationalists.” Translation: if Yeltsin yields too much, too fast to Kiev, he will be swept away by a coalition of demagogues bent on exploiting the hardships of the citizenry and die-hard believers in the old union. To be peaceful, a divorce between Kiev and Moscow will have to be gradual.

Yeltsin has already conceded sovereignty to Ukraine in principle. Two months ago, he and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, along with the leaders of nine other Soviet republics, abolished the U.S.S.R. In its place they formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, which is a misnomer wrapped in a contradiction inside a political fiction. After living for so long under the Kremlin, the new states really are not independent at all. Their economies and infrastructures will take years, even decades, to disentangle.

They won’t have anything like that long to sort out their new relations. The precedents for the abrupt end of empire are not encouraging. The division of the British Raj into India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Outraged over Charles de Gaulle’s willingness to free Algeria, colonialists and renegade elements in the French military stepped up a campaign of terror in an attempt to bring him down. With that in mind, one of Yeltsin’s advisers calls the Russians in the other republics “our pieds noirs,” as French settlers in North Africa were known.

The officers of the former Soviet Army are overwhelmingly Russian, but many of them are unwilling to accept allegiance to Russia alone. Their commander in chief, General Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, is subordinate not to Yeltsin but to a fractious committee of Commonwealth leaders. He attends its meetings as a power in his own right.

Everyone agrees that the Commonwealth is not a successor state to the U.S.S.R. but only a “transitional mechanism.” Yeltsin and Kravchuk have left open the question of where the transition is supposed to lead. Had they done otherwise, there would have been no agreement, since the Ukrainians want a weak Commonwealth and the Russians a strong one. During talks with Secretary of State James Baker last week, Yeltsin called tension between himself and Kravchuk over the future of the military “a source of anxiety,” requiring “great delicacy.” He also acknowledged that the Commonwealth is “distinguished by a certain degree of ambiguity in its structure and prospects.” That is not all bad, since the alternative to ambiguity at this stage could be war.

Until now, Yeltsin has been one of history’s blunt instruments. He tried to bull his way into the Oval Office during a visit to Washington in 1989, stormed out of the Communist Party in 1990, shook his fist at the putschists from atop a tank last August and poked his finger in Mikhail Gorbachev’s face a few days later. But now Yeltsin is showing himself capable of something like finesse. He has already become the first democratically elected Russian leader. If his countrymen, his neighbors and the outside world will give him time and room to maneuver, he may yet prove to be the first nonimperial one as well.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com