SOVIET authorities have been forced in the past week to turn their attention south, away from the drive for independence by the Baltic republics and toward ethnic violence in Soviet Central Asia. The number of people killed after a week of border clashes between the republics of Kirghizia and Uzbekistan has risen to 116, according to Soviet press reports yesterday. A regional state of emergency has been imposed since June 7, including the Kirghizian capital of Frunze.
The violence, only the latest in a string of such incidents, is rooted in the poverty of the region, experts say. The combination of economic crisis, nationalism, and the spreading influence of Islam could portend a secession crisis more far-reaching than the Baltics, they warn.
Soviet authorities in Moscow have paid far less attention to the region compared with their preoccupation with the independence movement in the Baltics. This focus is a ``deliberate cultural phenomenon,'' says Tair Tairov, a Central Asia expert. ``The Baltics are part of Europe. But here it is a Muslim area.''
The outbreaks of Central Asian violence go back to December 1987 riots in the Kazakh capital of Alma Ata. Last June, at least 110 people died when Uzbeks killed ethnic Turks in 10 days of rioting. Though directed against other Asian groups, such disturbances have taken on an anti-Russian character as well.
The immediate cause of these tensions is ``a very high rate of unemployment,'' Tairov says. In Uzbekistan, the largest of the five Central Asian republics, there are 1 million unemployed out of a population of about 20 million.
The latest violence originates in a conflict between Kirghiz and Uzbeks over land around the Kirghiz city of Osh. The area is at the end of the fertile Fergana Valley, which extends from Uzbekistan into Kirghizia, a mountainous republic inhabited by traditionally nomadic people. The valley within Kirghizia is populated largely by Uzbeks who have for years agitated to be incorporated into Uzbekistan.
Kirghiz radical Kazat Akhmatov told the independent Soviet news agency Postfactum that there were 30,000 homeless in the Osh area alone. Last fall, says Tairov, homeless started occupying the land of Uzbek collective farms. A month and half ago, local authorities started distributing such land.
These moves ``triggered the trouble'' that began June 4, the expert says. Since the fighting in Osh began, Soviet Interior Ministry troops have been called in to prevent the entry of thousands of Uzbeks who gathered on the border to aid their brethren. Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin describes them as ``ready to do battle.''
Traditionally the Central Asian republics have been regarded as the most passive and loyal in the Soviet Union. But there are signs of change.
In Uzbekistan, the Soviet Union's third-most-populous republic, Shukrulla Rahmatovich Mirsaidov, the new prime minister, called for ``economic independence'' in his first speech to the newly elected local parliament in March.
Disaffection is also reflected in the rapid spread of Islamic thought and religious observance. Since last year, Soviet authorities have given greater freedom to officially recognized Muslim clerics, in part, experts say, to combat the spread of more dangerous brands of fundamentalism.
``The influence of such unofficial [Muslim] leaders is very high,'' says a Soviet expert who does not wish to be identified.
Still, ``Central Asians have not yet reached the point where they have challenged the union,'' Tairov says. ``But I think they will come to that.''