ALTHOUGH Moscow is losing its ability to govern Russia, it is nevertheless trying to extend its control over neighboring states. Citing Russia's "vital interests" and "special responsibilities" Boris Yeltsin recently asked the world community to deputize Russia so it can start policing what used to be the Soviet Union. On Feb. 28, in a speech to the Civic Union (an ad-hoc coalition of former Communist Party apparatchiks and managers of state enterprises), the Russian president indicated that "the time ha s come for distinguished international organizations, including the UN, to grant Russia special powers of a guarantor of peace and stability in regions of the former USSR."
Mr. Yeltsin's appeal to legitimate a new Russian sphere of influence is unlikely to be repeated by a conservative successor, should he be ousted. The move would probably be taken unilaterally.
Months before Yeltsin's Civic Union address, Russian politicians and statesmen had begun stumping internationally for the sheriff's job, mainly on the platform of protecting the human rights of the 25 million ethnic Russians who, due to the break-up of the USSR into 15 independent states, have suddenly become minorities in foreign countries. Judging from the response of Western decisionmakers and opinion shapers they have succeeded in distorting the minority question in the former USSR by defining it as an exclusively Russian problem. This has dangerous implications not only for Russia's neighbors but also for the global community. Misleading figures
First of all, the figure of 25 million Russians living in diaspora is in itself misleading. This number may reflect the most recent Soviet census of 1989. But the census, in the opinion of many specialists, deliberately overstates the strength of the Russians to mitigate the demographic strength and growing restlessness among the USSR's non-Russian nationalities. Already by 1989 Russians were returning to Russia from the other republics by the thousands, and this trend accelerated visibly after the disin tegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Clearly, if another census were taken today there would be considerably fewer than 25 million people living outside of the Russian Federation who declare themselves Russian.
Surely there is an enormous Russian diaspora. Yet, it is not clear that Russians in other countries would welcome Moscow's intervention on their behalf. In Ukraine a majority of its 11 million ethnic Russians voted for Ukrainian independence in December 1991. Also, most of the Russian officers stationed in Ukraine opted to swear allegiance to Ukraine rather than return to an uncertain future in Russia. For many in the Russian diaspora, emotional and economic roots run deeper in non-Russian soil. Actually , in relative terms the Russian problem of diaspora is no larger than the problem of diaspora for any of the other former Soviet republics. The Russians living in diaspora account for about 17 percent of the total ethnic Russian population. This is about the same percentage of minorities living in other states that one finds among all the other 14 titular nationalities of the former Soviet republics.
Russia has the largest number of ethnic minorities. More than 27 million non-Russians reside within the Russian Federation. Put another way, almost 40 percent of the former Soviet Union's minorities live in Russia. Thus the issue is not only minorities living outside Russia, but those who live within its borders. What about non-Russians?
While Russia is making an international bid to protect minorities outside its borders, many of the minorities living in Russia are asserting their independence. Russia faces the prospect of disintegration. Addressing only the "25 million Russian minority" issue ignores the 27 million non-Russian minorities who live in Russia.
Russia's neighbors say Moscow is merely using the pretext of protecting Russian minority rights to mask latent imperial and nationalistic ambitions. Claims of Russia's "vital interests" and "special responsibilities" on the territory of the former USSR are particularly troublesome to the second largest former Soviet republic, Ukraine, which is home to the largest number of Russians living in diaspora. The Ukrainian government sees Yeltsin's bid to become the internationally sanctioned regional policeman as following a pattern of Russian revanchism established by three of the most powerful political figures in Russia: Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, speaker of the parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov, and the military-industrialist Arkady Volsky. All have issued repeated public declarations against Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Further alarming Ukraine and other former Soviet republics is that such revanchist rhetoric appears in Russia's new military doctrine. Specifically, it assigns to Russia's armed forces the mission not only of defending Russia's citizens, but an arbitrarily defined group of so-called "Russian speakers" living in the newly independent states bordering Russia. Meanwhile, Russian military units are already engaged in bloody military actions in four former Soviet republics - Moldova, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan.
Regardless of Russia's underlying motivations, giving it an international green light to act as a guarantor of peace and stability will only heighten tensions. This is especially true with Ukraine, which cites its national security concerns vis-a-vis Russia as the primary reason for delaying ratification of the START I treaty. Not only will nuclear disarmament be jeopardized by an escalation of Russo-Ukrainian tensions, so will 25 percent of Europe's natural gas, which runs through Ukraine's pipelines. The West isn't powerless
Many think there is little the West can do to positively influence the course of events in the former Soviet Union. By assuming helplessness, the West imagines it is absolved from the burden of thinking through the implications that resurgent militant Russian nationalism-cum-imperialism will have on the democratic and economic development of the former Soviet Union. Propping up the West's powerlessness is the curious but popular notion of Russian nationalism as a dangerous rattlesnake. The argument is th at if America does not sidestep the rattlesnake (but rather presses Serbs for a peace settlement in Bosnia, for example, or opposes Russia's attempt to reestablish its imperial grip over former republics), then it will be bitten - not in the US's best interests. Some snake-shy sages suggest that there is little the West can do to counter the resurgence of Russian nationalism - except helplessly watch as the reptile grows and slithers along its tragic path.
Actually, the West can play an important role in defusing ethnic tensions in the former USSR. President Clinton may have taken a tentative first step in doing this when he mentioned during a Vancouver summit press conference that the US is concerned about the human rights of Russian minorities - and of all minorities - living in and around the region.
The American president should follow-up on this statement by sending a clear signal that aid to former Soviet republics will be preconditioned on meeting human rights standards set by international law. Rights of all minorities living on the territory of the former USSR need to be honored, not only those of the Russian minorities. While recognizing Russia's and the former republics' special interests in their diaspora, the US, along with the international community, should refuse Russia's or any other co untry's bid to unilaterally "police" its neighbors. Additionally, America mediation may prevent diplomatic tensions over minority rights in the former Soviet Union from developing into conflicts. An honest broker is needed in helping ease tensions between Ukraine and Russia. That also could salvage the START treaty.