Latent Civil War In the Soviet Union? An Interview with Andrei Kortunov

Rapidly changing events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have brought a number of new thinkers to the fore in those countries. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with some of them, conducted by independent writer Mark Sommer.

ANDREI KORTUNOV is senior political analysts at the Institute of the US and Canada in Moscow.

Q: Reports from Moscow these days seem to indicate that as the economy worsens, the center is dropping out of Soviet politics, leaving only the extremes. Is this true, and if so, what are its implications?

A: The margin for maneuver for a successful transition is becoming very narrow. There are dangers from both the left and right. You need to be very smart to escape the extremes. Especially if you're also trying to democratize the society, which creates additional strains and limits on your activity.

But a military coup d'etat is not likely here. It's counter to our traditions. The army has never been an independent political body and I don't think it will be in the future, especially after Afghanistan. What is more probable is that we'll see latent civil war. Gorbachev still in the Kremlin making nice speeches and meeting American senators, and deputies in the Supreme Soviet raising the political culture of Muscovites by speaking on TV and publishing articles.

But none of it will have anything to do with reality because this country will be controlled by local power groups. In some cases they'll be based on nationalistic ideologies, in other cases they'll simply be mafia. In still other cases they may be populist, using egalitarian leaders who can appeal to people's basic concerns. In some cases there may even be ecological groups.

But the central power will collapse and the social infrastructure will disintegrate. The crime rate will rise, there will be terrorism and probably a growth of national violence. Groups may form semi-private military units, especially if the problem of discontentment in the army isn't solved. It will be a constant battle, like in Lebanon. But of course the scale is different and the armaments in hand are very different, so it could have very significant international consequences. Because if irresponsible political groups can get access to nuclear weapons, it could have global effects.

In this case I'm not sure anything could be done to change the situation. You could reach some crucial point where everything is down and the country is in a situation like, let's say, Japan after the Second World War. Then a new generation would have to start over from the very beginning. This is of course the worst case scenario, and I don't think it's the most probable one.

Q: What would be the international implications of this worst-case scenario?

A: There are two options. The first is that the Soviet Union will simply become an isolationist society. It would just close down and the conflict with the rest of the world would be pretty limited. The other possibility is that the Soviet leader at the time will find that the West is not supportive - that the Soviet Union has not been admitted to the club of civilized nations and the West doesn't take into account the problems we are facing. Then the Soviet Union might try to start another crusade against the prosperous and selfish West, trying to unite around itself the most oppressed and underprivileged nations of the third world.

The major conflict of the 20th century is the conflict between the North and South. And here, if the Soviet Union feels itself pushed in the direction of the South, like a developing nation, then it will feel a strong temptation to lead this crusade. Taking into account its military potential, its experience, and its global reach, I think it can be extremely dangerous for the whole world.

Even if the Soviet Union is an obedient player on the team of Western nations, even then the North-South split will be an extremely difficult problem to solve. It's a time bomb. And if the Soviet Union plays for the team of radical leftist regimes, the terrorists, the team of misfits and outcasts, it could turn into global disaster.

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