THE breakup of empires has always been politically untidy and bloody. So it should be no surprise that the fall of the Soviet empire is proving messy. However, political scientist Lincoln Bloomfield sees something novel in this current monumental change. It is the clash between two worldwide trends. One is a revival of virulent nationalism, particularly among ethnic groups. The other is the growing economic, environmental, security, and cultural interdependence of nations. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor calls it ``the twilight of genuine autonomy.''
Lithuania, struggling for independence from the Soviet Union, is a ``nation'' of less than 3 million people, at least a million less than the population of metropolitan Boston. It has a coastline on the Baltic Sea of about 50 miles in length. It has no major resources other than woods, farmland, and its people.
Fully independent, separated from its neighbors, its economic prospects would be ``pretty marginal,'' notes John Williamson, a fellow at the Institute for International Economics.
Though saddened by the tragedy in Vilnius early this week when Soviet troops took over the radio and television building, Mr. Williamson adds: ``I think the Baltics have been unreasonable in pressing the Soviets so hard for independence. It was surprising to me that the Soviets have been as restrained as they have been.''
History may account for the passion and impatience of the Lithuanians. The Grand Principality of Lithuania (a mini-empire itself at the time) became part of Russia in 1795. Lithuanians joined in an 1863 uprising by the Poles against Russia. Some 9,000 Lithuanian insurgents were sent to Siberia; 180 were hanged. Lenin allowed Lithuania to regain its independence after World War I. But Stalin's 1939 German-Soviet Treaty of Non-Aggression included a secret codicil putting Lithuania in the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1939, the Lithuanians were forced to accept a Soviet garrison. After a rigged election in 1940, Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Some 30,455 Lithuanian intelligentsia and others were sent to Siberia, another 5,000 executed.
Then Nazi Germany invaded, colonizing the area with Germans, sending thousands of Lithuanians to concentration camps, murdering Jewish Lithuanians. When the Soviets came back in 1944, Lithuanian partisans operated in the rural areas for several years. Between 1945 and 1948, another 205,000 Lithuanians were sent to the Soviet Union.
Such losses are huge compared to the relatively few Lithuanian-speakers.
Professor Bloomfield, who also hosts a television history show entitled ``50 Years Ago Today,'' sees the Soviet Empire as more comparable to the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires than those of Britain or France, whose colonies were overseas. The Austrian and Turkish empires, which often fought over portions of Eastern Europe, broke up in the aftermath of World War I. They were like a mosaic coming apart, their ethnic pieces falling away.
``The breakup of the multinational Soviet Union is coinciding with the worldwide surge in ethnicity,'' notes Bloomfield. The problems of ethnicity or tribalism trouble Yugoslavia, Belgium, Canada, Northern Ireland, and most of Africa.
Yet, as Bloomfield says, ``The more modern you get, the more interdependent you get. Common sense would drive you to a common market.''
The Soviet Union is about the only nation in the world that, in theory, could be economically self-sufficient because of its vast and varied resources. But it isn't. It must import modern technology, if nothing else. It could benefit from a common market with West Europe, as could the Baltic states.
Bloomfield expects more ``explosions'' in coming years as the putty holding the Soviet empire together weakens, despite President Mikhail Gorbachev's desire to avoid a breakup and work out some sort of looser confederation.
In the meantime, the United States and Western Europe must calculate how to respond to such affairs as that in Vilnius. ``I don't think we should cut the Soviets off,'' says Bloomfield. ``But we should look appropriately cross.''
That's because, in the scale of events, the end of the cold war is more important. Mr. Gorbachev has ended peacefully Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe. He has signed major disarmament deals with the West and reduced Soviet interventions in the third world. Within the Soviet Union, he has allowed far more freedom of speech, publication, politics, and religion.
The European Community this week condemned Moscow's violent crackdown in Lithuania and warned that $1 billion in promised aid might be endangered.
In the US, the White House has been considering whether more than a verbal response is needed.
Williamson doubts that measures to deny the Soviet Union a seat in the International Monetary Fund or stop already scheduled aid would discourage the Soviet leader from trying to keep the union together. And it is unclear how far Gorbachev wants to retrace his steps toward liberalization. But further bloody repression of independence movements will undoubtedly slow the Soviet Union's entry into the Western economic system and make further aid unlikely.