THE breathtaking changes that have occurred in the past year in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are the conclusion of a long-term 20th-century trend: the collapse of the great "European" empires.
It is this collapse that is at the root of much of the turmoil in the world today.
These empires - the British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman Turkish, Spanish, and Portuguese - had slowly formed over several centuries. The empires of the nations along the Atlantic coast consisted almost entirely of overseas holdings in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Germany had large African colonies and a few islands in the Pacific, but was primarily a European land power. The Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires were entirely made up of large adjacent landholdings.
The Spanish and Ottoman empires began to recede in the first half of the 19th century. Spain was ejected from most of the Americas in the first half of the century; the United States finished off Spanish rule in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898. Turkey lost control of Greece in 1829, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria in 1878, and Albania in 1912. But on the eve of World War I, it still controlled most of the Arab Middle East east of Egypt.
World War I led directly to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and German empires. (Imperial Russia was replaced by an imperial Soviet Union, consolidated under Stalin.) The breaking up of empires always leads to instability in world affairs, but in these cases, the inability of the great powers to manage the economic and political consequences led to disaster for the peoples of Europe and the Middle East.
The disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian empire left a serious vacuum in Central Europe and removed a crucial strategic buffer between the Germans and Russians. It was replaced by a series of small, impotent nation-states that had great difficulty establishing themselves in the interwar period. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union gladly filled it. World War II was the result. Artificial states
In the Middle East, France and Britain replaced Turkey as governors under League of Nations mandates. As later in Africa, they created artificial states that often did not respect historical and tribal boundaries. The British allowed thousands of Jews to emigrate to Palestine, where, after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, they set up the state of Israel in the face of tremendous Arab resistance. These policies contributed to the current Arab-Israeli dispute and several wars, including Leban on's civil war and last year's conflict in the Gulf. The boundaries that resulted also left the Kurds divided among several states; various Kurdish groups have waged separatist guerrilla wars ever since.
World War II eliminated the short-lived Nazi and Japanese empires, but it also doomed those of France and Britain. The French were eventually thrown out of Indochina by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists; that war was followed by the United States involvement there and civil wars in Laos and Cambodia. Subcontinent divided
The British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent after World War II, dividing it into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim Pakistan. India and Pakistan have since fought three wars; East Pakistan broke away (with Indian assistance) to become Bangladesh; ethnic and religious conflict continues today.
Much of Africa's history since European withdrawal has been marked by coups, countercoups, and tribal disputes, as governments have attempted to consolidate power within artificially drawn boundaries. France fought and lost a costly war to retain Algeria, but withdrew from the rest of its African colonies with little bloodshed. Britain withdrew as well, but allowed a white-supremacist republic to be set up in South Africa and South-West Africa, which led to decades of bitter anti-apartheid struggle on th e part of black South Africans and Namibians. Portugal fought long colonial wars to hang on to Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, but a new democratic government in Lisbon withdrew in 1974. Fighting between the government and rebels rages on today in Mozambique; Angola's civil war ended last year.
In Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany and its division into two states led to the reestablishment, in theory, of the Central and East European countries. The Soviet Union was left as the last European empire. It moved into the resulting power vacuum, seizing back parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and creating a series of Communist puppet states in Eastern Europe.
This created a Soviet-controlled buffer zone between the Russians and Germans, and silenced - for a time - East Europe's many ethnic disputes. The balance of power between US-led NATO forces and the Soviet Army led to a 45-year period of relative, if often tense, calm and stability in Europe. The rivalry between the US and Soviet Union went on, however, in wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
This is the type of world those born since 1940 have come to accept as normal. But as is now becoming clear, it was merely a lull in a longer historical trend.
That period ended over the last two years with the collapse of the Soviet empire. With its economy grinding to a halt, Soviet leaders under Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to give it new life with political reforms. But the empire's centrifugal political and nationalist forces proved to be too great for a government that was not willing to hold the country together by brute force, as Lenin, Stalin, and their successors had done. Ethnic strife
Like the collapse of empires before it, the dissolution of the Soviet empire has not gone smoothly.
Among the former Soviet republics, those in the Caucasus - Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan - have seen the most ethnic strife. But the potential for conflict in and between other republics, such as has occurred in Moldavia, is strong. Four of the new nations possess nuclear weapons. Hence the concern of Western leaders to get food, technical, and economic aid to the former Soviet republics to head off turmoil there.
Now that the East European states have fully regained their independence, historic patterns are reasserting themselves. Multiethnic states artificially created after World War I - Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia - are disintegrating. While the Czechs and Slovaks show no sign of engaging each other in combat, Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims in what used to be Yugoslavia have been freed by the changes in Europe to resume their centuries-old feud in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and created up to 2 million refugees in the last year. Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina are now recognized as independent countries. Recognition of Macedonia is being held up by a dispute with Greece over alleged territorial claims and the right to use the name "Macedonia."
Western leaders are well aware of what history says about the consequences of imperial collapse, even when such collapse is desirable. That is why the most important international organizations, from the United Nations to the World Bank to the European Community, are so concerned about events in what used to be the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. If the forces of nationalism and economic chaos cannot be reined in, and a stable political and economic order created, history in dicates that the road ahead will be a rough one.
The political question in the West now is whether or not Western publics and legislatures understand the danger and have the patience to support granting the large amount of assistance that will be required.