PLACES like Byelorussia and the Ukraine used to draw snickers. They held seats in the United Nations, but everyone knew their nationhood was a Soviet artifice. Everyone was wrong. There never was anything artificial about nationalism in these countries or others long trapped in Moscow's bear hug.
The Ukraine has experienced profound democratic rumblings in the past week as student hunger strikers forced the republic's president to remove an unpopular prime minister. The parliament, still dominated by communists, is being pushed toward radical positions.
Byelorussia, another large Slavic republic long thought to be irreversibly in the Soviet grasp, declared months ago that its laws will take precedence over those of the central government.
Soviet Georgia, homeland of foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze - as well as Joseph Stalin - this week held its first free parliamentary elections. The victorious seven-party noncommunist alliance wants a quick transition to independence.
But little in today's Soviet Union happens as quickly as radical reformers would like. The move toward independent republics has been gaining momentum for nearly three years now. Most Soviets concede that the Baltics, at least, will break free, but the process is slowed by Soviet delaying. The old-line apparatchiks in the bureaucracy and in the parliaments can't reverse the tide, but they can still muck things up. As one Ukrainian journalist commented, ``These people are world experts in stalling.''
Stalling won't hold off an constitutional crisis as republics - including Russia itself - take matters into their own hands. Can the center reassert itself, or at least craft a new relationship with break-away republics? The answer to that question will shape the future for Soviet citizens - and much of the rest of the world.