ALTHOUGH Gorbachev the born-again reformer may be calculating that shared economic hardships could bring the frayed Soviet Union together, evidence on the ground indicates the opposite could well be true. As material conditions deteriorate, central authority breaks down, and tensions mount, it's not only the Baltic and Caucasian states that are groping for independence. The Slavic republics of Ukraine and Belorussia are becoming assertive, and popular demands for political and economic sovereignty are a ccelerating. Recent strikes and mass demonstrations in the Belorussian capital of Minsk, one of the last Communist strongholds, and the industrial action by Ukrainian miners, are the most visible seams of deepening crisis. A growing number of citizens are no longer demanding mere pay increases, especially as money is fast becoming worthless and goods scarcer. Workers are now entering the political arena in force and are unlikely to be pacified for long with partial management concessions. Two issues are stoking the fires of revolt in the western republics: an expanding ethnic and national consciousness, and rejection of bureaucratic dictate from Moscow.
Ukraine is becoming ripe territory for major unrest. The republican elections last year launched the pro-independence movement Rukh into local power in the western oblasts and gave them a substantial share of seats in central and eastern regions, even in areas considered predominantly Russian or Russified. Rukh itself has been unable to swell into a mass movement on the scale of Poland's Solidarity a decade ago. Its intellectual leadership finds it difficult to forge links with the working class, partic ularly in the Donbas industrial heartland. But the situation is shifting.
The wave of strikes revealed the workers' growing political aspirations and could presage the start of a widescale civic and national revolt. According to Ukrainian miner representatives participating in one of the regular Rukh rallies in Kiev, material conditions do not figure as highly on their agenda as do demands for far-reaching political and national rights. For them it is a fundamental question of regaining their dignity as citizens and shaking off intolerable and arbitrary communist controls. Ko lkhoz peasants in western Ukraine expressed similar sentiments. Older farmers even reminisced about the pre-Soviet days, when they could own land and other resources and weren't at the mercy of ignorant local directors and party bosses.
Nationalism is also on the rise in Ukraine, not in a rabid display of extremist chauvinism as Soviet propaganda has depicted it, but in efforts to reestablish national identity in political, cultural, educational, and religious life. Of course, the process is not free of problems, particularly over ethnic cleavages and religious divisions between Uniate and Orthodox Christians. But these can be resolved if all Ukrainian citizens, including Russian and Polish minorities, feel they have a stake in the sys tem and do not suffer discrimination for their beliefs.
Ethnic rediscovery is also visible in Belorussia, a nation which has never managed to establish its own state but where the independence-minded popular front has garnered substantial support. Ironically, communist rule, which was supposed to eradicate ethnic differences and create one uniform working class culture, has actually managed to stimulate a national renaissance. Sovietism in its current decaying stage has run out of alternatives for both the alienated intellectuals and disgruntled Belorussian masses. Gorbachev is widely perceived as a latter-day communist, offering little substance but intent on preserving an untenable federation of disparate nations and cultures during a bad economic storm.
The recently concluded Gorbachev-Yeltsin union concord, to which the communist authorities in Minsk and Kiev ascribed, is widely viewed with suspicion either as an imperial maneuver or as another worthless paper agreement that will be outpaced by events. Although the nine republics that signed the agreement may gain some respite, the remaining six could suffer renewed pressures for their defiance.
Moscow's desperate courting of foreign economic aid places Western governments in a stronger bargaining position than ever before vis-`a-vis internal Soviet developments. The USSR is crumbling from within and some creative planning by Western policymakers is imperative. As in Yugoslavia, the West cannot close its eyes and deal only with the discredited federal authorities and with only one nationality at the expense of democratic and autonomist forces. Economic and political contacts at the republican a nd local levels must be expanded in order to bypass the stifling Soviet bureaucracy. This does not exclude dealing with Moscow. On the contrary, one condition for any serious Western assistance would be Kremlin guarantees that the sovereign republics can control their economies and deal directly with foreign agencies.
Activists in both the Ukrainian and Belorussian republics, as well as in the Baltics, are also looking increasingly toward the already liberated East European states. They serve as a potential bridge to the West, as a model of successful emergence from communism, and as a potential counterbalance to pressures from the East. In turn, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania are seeking more secure Eastern borders, assurances against waves of Soviet refugees, and potentially valuable future markets. T his is one important arena where the West could clearly become more supportive, both materially and diplomatically, without necessarily upsetting the Kremlin by threatening to radically redraw Europe's security map.