THE disintegration of the USSR and the political and economic chaos in its former republics has imposed new responsibilities on the Russian Federation. There are heated debates in Russia about the assistance that it provides to its ``former brothers,'' as well as about the priority of military and the strategic interests of Moscow in the republics.
The Russian authorities surely would like to keep political and economic control over all of the former USSR. But many Russians believe that the republics, which wanted independence so badly, deserve no aid.
Meanwhile Russia itself faces a number of national conflicts. There are concerns in Russia that the country should concentrate on its own problems rather than take care of independent republics, although in fact these republics are still dependent on Moscow in many respects.
But do the new republics really want a ``new partnership'' with Moscow, which cannot solve its own problems, let alone the problems of others?
After the breakdown of the USSR, the communist leaders (former first secretaries of the local communist parties) kept their positions as the ``new'' leaders of the independent republics. These leaders took the opportunity to become free from Moscow's pressure, but their methods of political and economic management remained the same. They support the idea of a strong economic and political unity with Russia and other republics only when they can benefit from it (mainly through low prices on raw materials, defense of common borders). But they will definitely protect their independence if Moscow openly tells them how to behave.
The rupture of economic links between the republics of the former USSR put them on a verge of economic collapse. Not one of the republics won from the USSR breakdown. The economies of the republics have been ruined by supply shortages, lack of raw material, and destruction of the united planning mechanism.
Almost all the Soviet republics still depend on Russia for energy supplies; such republics as Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan lost more than a half of their economic potential for the past year.
What was the reaction in Russia to all these events? Many in the Russian political establishment think that ``we have to be there at any price.'' The activity of Turkey, Iran, China, Romania, Pakistan, and other countries along the former Soviet borders lead Russia to challenge anybody who wants to fill in the geopolitical vacuum in the former republics.
The public, however, rejects the idea of Russian military interference in the national and civil disputes and conflicts in places such as Tajikistan, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia. Many people point to United States efforts in Somalia and argue that Russia should not sacrifice troops in Georgia, for example, just to keep Eduard Shevardnadze in power; they prefer the use of diplomacy to establish long-term peace in regions of conflict.
Unfortunately, Russia has not yet worked out a clear-cut, flexible policy toward the former republics. All the military and national conflicts in 1992-93 (Tajikistan, Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, Georgia, Chechnya, Transdniester area, and Crimea) showed that Russian diplomacy can be unpredictable when the situation becomes critical. Sometimes the official tone of the Russian authorities on their relationship with the republics of the former USSR shifts from total ignorance to an overly nationalistic stance.
Yet a significant theme recurs in Moscow's pronouncements, particularly when Moscow feels the republics are behaving ``incorrectly'': protection of the Russian-speaking population living in the republics. And when talking about the expected reaction of Russian leaders to the conflicts and relations with the ex-USSR states, we have to take into account the new role of the Russian Army, which showed its increasing importance and power in the political life of Russia after October's bloody standoff in Moscow.
INDEED, Russian nationalists look at the success of the Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in December's election and point to the showing as an ``impressive warning'' to all those who forgot about real Russian might. For the independent republics, it was another reason to call to the West for political and military protection, including NATO membership.
Yet it would be a mistake to overestimate Mr. Zhirinovsky's influence on Russian foreign policy, especially toward its near neighbors. This man simply can't do anything important, domestically or abroad. His party exists more on paper than in reality. His ideas and proposals have no practical implementation in Russia now, and the people's support during the elections was nothing more than a despaired cry of the Russian population.
Still, the republics have seen Russia's ``imperial behavior'' and have tried to establish closer economic and political contacts with the Western countries. But the official stand of key Russian ministers remains the same: For the near future, all of the republics will inevitably remain within Moscow's sphere of influence.
Moscow stresses that the territory of the former USSR is an ``exclusive zone of the Russian interests.'' There are indications that a new form of unification of the majority of ex-Soviet republics is inevitable in the near future. For example, Georgia recently decided to join the Commonwealth of Independent States.
It is highly doubtful that a new USSR might be restored. But the majority of the republics obviously want to find an appropriate and effective form of ``mutual survival.''
In addition, it is clear that not all the republics (as well as autonomies of the Russian Federation itself) will sell their political independence for the economic benefits from Moscow. Local leaders have fought for their independence from Moscow for years. Now that they have tasted power, they hardly will allow Russian President Boris Yeltsin or anyone else to tell them how to live.
In spite of all its domestic troubles, Russia will try to keep its influence in all the republics of the former USSR, mainly by using economic and financial pressure.
The leaders of Ukraine, Tajikistan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, and others think that ``Russian aid'' should mean beneficial financial loans, free supplies of raw materials on preferential prices, and purchases of their own goods, which cannot compete on the world market. Moscow's official stand is to keep these republics under its influence politically as well as to force them to pay world prices for the goods they import. ``Why shall we sell oil to the Ukraine at 20 percent of the market price when they don't want to give us back the Crimea peninsula?'' Such was a reaction of one Russian ministerial official when he commented on the recent talks between the governmental delegations of two republics. This reaction is emblematic and takes into account the general stand of Russia towards the ``former brothers'': You wanted your own independence from Moscow, so now you have to pay for it.
Moscow also will do its best to stop the spreading of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Russian nationalism throughout the ex-Soviet territories.
However, the level and efficiency of Moscow's ``political and economic peacemaking'' will strongly depend on the political stability in Russia itself. Such stability will help avoid not only the potential military and civilian conflicts but also build a new form of a comprehensive alliance between all the republics and states that once formed the Soviet Union. Then Russia will be no more an ``evil empire'' to them, but an important (and inevitable) partner. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.