REMEMBER the domino theory? Nations falling like dominoes all the way from Vietnam to Indonesia. Or from Nicaragua to Laredo. A version of the tarnished theory seems to be alive and well and living in Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev's Armenian problem may reinforce what is a specious but fascinating line of geopolitical thinking with which some fearful people frighten themselves.
Their thesis is that the officially atheist Soviet Union provides a bulwark protecting Christian Europe against a tide of Islamic fundamentalism. This scenario is about as credible as the forecast of a showdown (Armageddon) between Soviet communism and the West; or of a join-as-we-march-north penetration of Central American and Mexican Marxists into the American Southwest.
Despite its far-fetched nature, the Soviet shield theory grows from roots worth examining.
First, it's useful to look at what might be called internal Russian domino fears. The Soviet Union contains more than 120 nationality and ethnic groups. Some retain strong feelings of cultural identity and seek to maintain independent traditions. Under the Gorbachev banner of glasnost (openness), several of the most vigorous nationality groups have gone public with protests over historic grievances.
Tatars from the Crimea protested in Red Square last July. And on Sunday in Krasnodar, northern Caucasus, police broke up a demonstration staged in support of a group of Tatars who Saturday had sought to demonstrate near the Kremlin. They were put on trains back to the Crimea.
Groups in the formerly independent Baltic republics have staged protests in their capitals. In December 1986 a Kazakh uprising in the city of Alma Ata was notable both for its youth and labor backing and its anti-Russian overtones.
Short term, these protests are a problem for Mr. Gorbachev. His more-conservative rivals (perhaps skeptics is a better term) on the ruling Politburo and in the Central Committee of the Communist Party capitalized on the Tatar protest in Moscow in particular. They used it last summer and fall as ammunition against Gorbachev's deposed prot'eg'e, Moscow city boss Boris Yeltsin, saying that by letting demonstrators picket he had opened the way for divisions among nationalities in the USSR. Similar accusations were made against Gorbachev's reform program in 1986 when the Kazakh clashes coincided with Chinese youth marches for democracy in Peking.
The conservatives in the Kremlin argued that glasnost was giving nationality groups an inch and they were taking a mile. It's a clich'e by now to say that Russians, the dominant nationality group in the Soviet conglomerate, are concerned about the shifting power balance that may occur because of higher birthrates among the USSR's non-Russian Asian nationalities. For decades, speculative historians have postulated that the time would come when a new ethnic awareness would arrive among the Turkic peoples who populate large parts of the southern USSR.
That is a different version of cultural and political dominoes than the broader Islamic fundamentalism scenario mentioned earlier. The latter seems to be a product of irrational but explainable fears in parts of Western Europe. Those fears stem from events in the Mideast and even North Africa. Some French still affected by the loss of Algeria, or Germans concerned about Mideast hostage-taking or the growth of the Turkish community in Berlin are prey to anxieties not unlike earlier fears of the Yellow Peril, Asian dominance.
The clash of Soviet Armenians with Soviet Azerbaijanis seems to fit into this scenario. The Armenians are Orthodox Christian. Azerbaijanis are Shiite Muslim. The Armenians are resurrecting demands that Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, be joined to the Armenian Soviet republic.
For Gorbachev and his Politburo colleagues this is serious stuff. Westerners often overestimate the impact of dissent in the Soviet Union, just as Soviets often overestimate the impact of protesters in the US. National disintegration is not around the corner in either case. But Moscow faces accumulated difficulties involving Islamic minorities. It has agreed to retreat in the face of devout Afghan rebels challenging its Army for a decade in Afghanistan. The USSR is being pressed by the West to join in sanctions against Iran, the center of the new Islamic fundamentalism.
(Remember that the Caucasus lands of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were added to the Soviet Union only between 1920 and 1922 at the end of the civil war between the Bolshevik and White Russian armies.
(Remember also that Moscow tried to retain a presence in Iran after World War II when the Iranian Tudeh [Communist] Party organized a rebellion by Azerbaijanis in the northern part of that country.)
Neither Western nor Kremlin leaders should be designing their policies toward this part of the Islamic world through fear (or appeasement, either).
In an earlier era, Central European leaders sought to divert the Czar's covetous attention away from Europe by cultivating his fears of Asian encroachment on his eastern flank - the Yellow Peril. In the end some of the European leaders who invented the phobia fell prey to it themselves. It would be wasteful to repeat that mistake.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.