THE world's last major empire - the Soviet Union - is collapsing. Independent statehood will probably become a reality for the Baltic republics in the next one to three years and for most other republics by the year 2000. It is doubtful, however, that any of the nationalities within the Russian and other union republics will achieve independence. Events since the late 1980s suggest that every national grouping within the Soviet Union will follow the model set in the Baltics, unless circumstances - usually perceived geographical limitations - intervene.
The following model prescribes a process of national self-assertion spanning at least 15 stages: (1) National awakening, sparked by environmental or other challenges to the nation's well-being; (2) Formation of a popular front (usually including some former communist leaders) with demands for national "sovereignty"; (3) Organization of political movements or parties demanding independence; (4) Atrophy if former Communist Party members, now popular-front and independence candidates, prevail in elections;
(5) Efforts by local communists to shed their past and gain a new identity; (6) Cultural self-assertion - moves to restore local language, culture, and religion; (7) Claims to own the nation's natural resources; (8) Disclaimer of any duty for nationals to serve in all-union military institutions; (9) Awareness that national minorities within the republic have their own claims; (10) Efforts to dislodge the hegemony of all-union ministries and start a market economy; (11) A "war of laws" as local legislature s
strive to make their laws superior to the USSR constitution; (12) Defiance of gnarled carrots proffered and spiked sticks wielded by the center; (13) Elaboration of ties with other nations of the Soviet Union; (14) Efforts to build transnational and commercial ties beyond Soviet borders with individuals, firms, and countries; (15) The quest for recognition as an independent state by international organizations and other states.
This forecast is rooted in two key assumptions. First, psychic scars suffered by former captive nations make it difficult to rebuild the union or even a loose federation. Second, the USSR is too large and too culturally diverse to be united in more than a loose "commonwealth." Gorbachev fears to think of other alternatives, but Washington must do so.
The liberation process depends upon the same three variables that shape every empire: the state of the core, the peripheral units, and relations between and among them, plus the willingness of outside actors to support the liberation process.
THE United States and other Western nations can shape the process in important ways. First, they can assert their preference for democratic government including national self-determination, with protection for ethnic minorities. Second, they should drop the idea that one man's rule is essential for the well-being of the world's largest state and international security. Third, they should assure the Kremlin that the West does not plan to exploit the national liberation process in ways that would undermin e
Guarantees can be built into the process to enhance world security, commerce, and environmental protection. Russia should be assured that the independence of its borderlands will not multiply threats to its security and other vital interests. A solution could draw upon elements in the 1920 Russian-Estonian treaty affirming Estonia's independence and the 1955 Austrian treaty affirming Austria's neutrality and independence. The 1920 Tartu Peace Treaty established demilitarized zones, protections of proper t
y rights, use of common waters, and settlement of financial claims. The Austrian State Treaty and companion documents established the country's independence and neutrality. Such arrangements could be drafted and applied in the Baltics.
One uncertainty is whether minorities within the union republics will obtain the same respect that the majorities demand. Most ethnic minorities - Yakuts, Ossetians, and others - will probably settle for greater autonomy within independent republics; a few may secede to neighboring states; and some - small, isolated, dwindling - may fail to get a better deal of any kind.
In some republics, geographical constraints may impede national liberation. Nations that are surrounded by others, cut off from communication, or threatened by powerful neighbors are less likely to assert their claims to sovereignty than those with easy, unthreatened access to the rest of the world.
Not all peoples of the Soviet Union are confident that they can function as independent economic and political entities. But smallness need not be a major obstacle to independence. Some of the wealthiest nations are small: Sweden, Costa Rica, Singapore, Kuwait. Some are even landlocked: Luxembourg, Switzerland, Andorra. A strong material resource base is less important than information technology and entrepreneurial skills.
The Baltic nations seem to have assuaged the concerns of most non-Balts in their midst. At the other end of the spectrum, Armenians in Azerbaijan and South Ossetians in Georgia have no confidence that their rights will be respected by the dominant nation. If a majority borders on Russia, it may join the Russian federation. If it does not, its safety is more tenuous. Such groups deserve international safeguards.
National liberation does not contradict the spirit of 1776 but reflects it. An enlightened America will not stand in the way of such progress and can help it along.