The Soviet Union's `Small' Dictators

MANY United States observers on human rights violations in the Soviet Union depict Moscow as the ``big bully'' that uses tanks and guns to suppress small, independence-minded republics. But the record shows that Mikhail Gorbachev's central government has exercised relative restraint compared to the republics themselves. By ignoring the republics' abuses of the human rights of their minorities or neighbors, American political leaders apply a double standard and neglect an opportunity to help prevent furt her violence in the USSR. In the Baltics, Georgia, and Moldova (formally Moldavia), noncommunist governments have harassed, persecuted, and killed members of minority nationalities who disagree with dominant independence movements. The Baltic states have limited the rights to housing and food of the 3 million Russians living on their territory. Further, they are considering stringent citizenship requirements (including residency before 1940 and language mastery) that would virtually prohibit Russians from gaining citizenship.

Lithuanians assert the invalidity of the 1940 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which led to their absorption by Moscow. But through this pact they also gained territory from Poland, including Vilnius, their capital. Vilnius still has a large Polish population, whose minority rights the Lithuanian government negates.

In Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia's government has cut off heat and electricity to South Ossetia, whose non-Georgian population opposes secession. Ossetians, Russians, and Armenians (including women, children, the elderly, and sick in hospitals) are suffering cold, hunger, and death from this blockade. Because they fear oppression by the Georgian majority, thousands of refugees have fled from South to North Ossetia (on Russian territory).

In Moldova, the Turkic Gagauz people and the Russian/Ukrainian population of the Dnestr region have opposed secession, and held territorial elections for self-determination. In response, the Moldovan government (dominated by the nationalistic People's Front) has authorized the formation of volunteer detachments to control these areas. Subsequent clashes have produced deaths on all sides. In Azerbaijan, the dominant Azeris have inflicted pogroms on Armenians and cut off gas that travels through their ter ritory to Armenia. In turn, Armenians have forced Azeris to flee Armenia.

The rhetoric of some republican leaders reveals their callous indifference to the rights of minorities. Georgian President Gamsakhurdia, sometimes called the ``Georgian Mussolini,'' has blamed communists for the quarrel between Tbilisi and South Ossetia, and urged that communists be ``chopped up, ... burned out with a red-hot iron of the Georgian nation.'' He has also threatened to ``drive [out] all the evil enemies and non-Georgians who have taken refuge here.''

Under Gorbachev, Moscow's anti-independence crackdowns have killed fewer people than inter-ethnic violence in and between republics. The Soviet crackdown in Georgia in 1989 caused 20 deaths, and Moscow's recent use of force in the Baltics also resulted in 20 dead. But hundreds of Armenians have died in Azeri pogroms, and thousands more have died in the Azeri siege of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least 50 people have died and hundreds more wounded in Georgia's crackdown on South Ossetia. The Moldovan squeeze on the Gagauz and Dnester regions has produced at least 10 violent deaths. In November 1990, a nationalistic mob attacked unarmed soldiers in Namangan, Uzbekistan, beating and burning three to death; two civilians were also killed. Altogether, ethnic violence in the USSR has produced 700,000 internal refugees.

We should not ignore Moscow's actions, but we ought to condemn human rights violations regardless of who the perpetrators are. If the republics fail to protect minority rights in a divided USSR, the lives of 60-70 million citizens who are minorities will be at risk.

What can the US do? First, we must set a standard of behavior for all Soviet actors who wish to receive Western aid or investments, including guarantees of minorities' physical safety, human rights, and the right to self-determination. Second, we can offer a platform in the West for Soviet advocates of human rights in the republics. Third, the US government should give financial and political support to Soviet and Western specialists involved in ethnic conflict-resolution projects in the USSR. Fourth, w e should respond to calls from minorities like the Gagauz to create UN fact-finding missions to verify human rights abuses in the republics. Finally, we should publicize widely all known human rights infringements by Moscow, by the republics, and by minorities.

Unchecked human rights violations in the republics could lead to a civil war that would kill reform in the USSR and create millions of refugees. Violence could spread beyond Soviet borders. If we continue to neglect human rights violations in the republics, we also risk renewing the cold war; already, some Moscow officials feel that the US human rights rhetoric is one-sided and hypocritical.

It is time we ended our silence. We have condemned human rights abuses by Moscow's ``big dictators'' in the past; let us not hesitate now to condemn similar actions by ``small dictators'' in the republics.

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