THE Soviet military, unflinchingly subordinate to the party leadership during the communist era, appears to be developing into an independent political force as the new Commonwealth of Independent States moves away from a totalitarian tradition.
Indications that the armed forces are seeking a greater political role abounded at a Kremlin gathering Friday of 5,000 officers elected to represent military units from around the former Soviet Union.
The meeting featured plenty of angry rhetoric denouncing the political course of events since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late December. The officers called on the 11 republics comprising the new commonwealth to retain a united military. Sharp criticism was leveled at Ukraine for its effort to take over the Black Sea fleet of 300 vessels.
"We do not want the political ambitions and personal interests of some short-sighted politicians to separate us," read an appeal to the people and leaders of commonwealth states, adopted at the officers' gathering. Last barrier against chaos
A perceived lack of an authority figure who could restore stability to the commonwealth seems to be fueling politicization of the military. Gen. Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, commander of commonwealth armed forces, warned of a possible "global tragedy" in his speech. "The armed forces remain our last barrier against disintegration," he said.
The assembly also expressed deep dissatisfaction with the declining living standards of officers as a result of radical economic reforms in Russia and other commonwealth states.
During the meeting, the officers elected a council that will take their complaints directly to commonwealth political leaders.
Meanwhile, political leaders took steps to keep the lid on discontent. In a statement read by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev at Friday's meeting, the commonwealth heads of state pledged to pay more attention to officers' needs. They promised to build new housing for military personnel and preserve a common pension system. Any division or reduction in the armed forces would be resolved on a "legal basis," the statement said.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who faces widespread popular discontent with his government's economic reforms, tried to keep the officer corps on his side by vowing "to fight to the death" to preserve a unified military. In his speech to the officers, he asked them to be patient.
"As Russian president, elected by the people, I appeal to you to preserve civic calm," Mr. Yeltsin said. "It is easy enough to start a fire. It is far more difficult to extinguish it."
Yeltsin seems to have succeeded in assuaging the officers' concerns for the time being, but their long-term loyalty to his reforms is still far from certain. Officers interviewed outside the Kremlin after the meeting said they didn't have much faith in Yeltsin's political skills and were wary of his tendency to engage in populist politics.
"He should pander less to the public. He's now in a responsible position and enjoys the trust of the people," says Maj. Sergei Ivanov. "If he loses their trust, I don't know who the people will trust after him."
Also far from certain is just how far the military is willing to go in the defense of its interests. Officers dismissed the possibility of a coup. "To bring order to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, or any other city for that matter, isn't part of our responsibilities," says Major Ivanov.
But some officers clearly are pushing for the military to play a more active role in the political decision-making process.
"The force that was present there [at the Kremlin meeting] should compel the leaders of the states to listen to the officers and somehow correct the decisions that had been adopted earlier," said Maj. A. Taranenko in an interview published by the military daily Krasnaya Zvezda. Moderates in control
Currently the moderates in the military, led by General Shaposhnikov, appear to be in control and willing to carry out decisions taken by the commonwealth's political leadership. But the influence of the moderates may decline if Ukraine presses ahead with plans to create its own armed forces, some officers say.
Ukraine shows no signs of compromising on the issue of its own republican army. In a televised speech Sunday, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk rejected the officers' appeal for a unified military. He stressed that the commonwealth's founding accords specifically allow for the creation of separate armed forces by member states, the Interfax news agency said. "I do not perceive how 11 independent states can share a common army," Mr. Kravchuk said.
If the military develops into a political force, any role it may play could have dire consequences for the commonwealth, said Andrei Ostalsky, writing in the Saturday edition of Izvestia.
"Everywhere where the Army refuses to be the instrument of politicians, when it takes upon itself an independent political role, the well-being of society is endangered," Mr. Ostalsky said.