AS the Commonwealth of Independent States begins its second year of existence, its future is unclear. The prospects for stability across the entire territory of the former Soviet Union are poor. The expanse that was the USSR has become a vast zone of political uncertainty in which civil wars flare, economic crises deepen, and orderly civilian and military authority is threatened by anarchy.
The West behaves, however, as if the old Soviet empire has at least found new governmental clothing in the form of 15 republican governments and a commonwealth in which two-thirds of these governments participate. Everyone acknowledges that these governments face enormous problems and that many of them lack the will to implement necessary reforms. But there's more or, rather, less to it than that.
What's lacking to a very serious degree is government itself. Like the emperor in the old fairy tale, much of the former empire is - if not naked - far less clothed in government than is admitted.
Officially, the Soviet Union has been reorganized into 15 sovereign states whose claims to independence have been widely recognized by the international community. On the surface this seems to be a relatively neat tidying up following the collapse of the world's last and largest empire.
The realities are otherwise. The empire has yet to stop collapsing, and it is either wishful thinking or self-deception to ignore the anarchic conditions that now exist and threaten to worsen.
Consider the following: The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is entering its sixth year, the belligerents equipped by weapons stolen from or sold by a demoralized Russian Army beyond the control of Moscow.
Civil wars or militarized secession struggles are underway in Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, and in the Caucasus region in Russia.
Independence movements have developed in many of the autonomous republics within Russia, from Tatarstan to Yakutia. Some, such as the one in Tatarstan have begun to attract international support. In the Narva region in Estonia, in the Crimea in the Ukraine, and in northern Kazakhstan, secessionist movements stir among ethnic Russian residents.
In Russia many politicians and at least a part of the military and security establishment do not accept the borders of the new Russian state. They regard Boris Yeltsin's government and the independent republics as the illegitimate products of a coup by President Yeltsin and republic nationalists against the USSR.
Exacerbating the situation, the Russian military shows signs of internal anarchy. Corruption and the freelance sale of weapons have become extensive. The quantity of military weapons "lost" these days is substantial and does not augur well for the future, especially in the Caucasus region. In the first 10 months of 1992 in the Transcaucasus Military District, nearly 4,000 artillery pieces, 1300 military vehicles, and at least 600 train-car loads of munitions were reported missing or stolen. These weapons
have found their way to factions on all sides of the conflicts in the region.
IN Moldova, local Russian military units continue to transfer weapons to ethnic Russian secessionists in the Trans-Dniester region and to pursue a local foreign policy distinctly at odds with Yeltsin's efforts to negotiate with the Moldovan government.
The state of government in Russia itself is poor. In an impassioned address to the Congress of People's Deputies in December, Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, warned that "legal nihilism" had reached critical proportions. The powers of the branches of government are vague. Political stalemate and chaos in Moscow threaten the adoption of badly needed reform legislation as well as a new constitution. The legal system is a shambles - a situation that suits the increasingly powerful m afias and old-style bosses.
Moscow's authority in the rest of Russia is very weak. It is struggling to control rebellions in the Russian Caucasus and has been reduced to negotiating with a growing list of regional leaders as equals. Administrative machinery to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Communist Party has yet to appear. Ironically, in republics such as Kazakhstan, where a limited democratization is occurring even though the old party machinery remains intact, government appears more effective than in Russia.
Finally, the commonwealth remains a "project" of limited importance. It has provided a framework for the transitional location of command over the strategic forces of the former Soviet Union located in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
The commonwealth is a symbol of a commitment of some republics - the Baltic states and Georgia have never joined, and Moldova and Azerbaijan have since rejected full membership - to maintain special political and economic ties.
What should and can Western governments do to improve the situation, if establishing effective government is a task that can be accomplished only by the people of the former Soviet Union?
First, discourage unwarranted, premature international recognition of claims to independent status by "micro-nations" in the former Soviet Union.
Second, offer more substantial technical and financial aid relevant to increasing the effectiveness of government in the republics. This should include not only technical aid in improving public administration, but regional development grants that republic governments could use to promote development and as incentives to restore regional peace and reintegrate alienated regions into the republic.
Finally, Western governments should use their collective influence in the capitals of the original members of the commonwealth to support transforming the commonwealth into a more meaningful and effective instrument for economic coordination. Without such an instrument, the economic crises in the republics will continue to deepen.