THE overwhelming victory Sunday of a pro-Russian politician as president of the Crimea, a largely Russian-populated region of Ukraine, is a political earthquake with tremors felt throughout the former Soviet Union.
Yuri Meshkov, the victor, is an open advocate of reunification of Crimea with Russia. Although he has toned down his rhetoric, now calling for a ``gradual'' process of reintegration without any immediate change in borders, Mr. Meshkov's election puts the potential breakup of Ukraine on the political agenda.
The Crimean elections and its aftermath will be watched very closely by other former Soviet republics with significant Russian-speaking minorities.
The concerns of these newly independent countries were already greatly heightened by the triumph in the December Russian parliamentary elections of Communist and extreme nationalist forces who advocate restoration of the former Soviet Union.
Dangers of ethnic conflicts
In a little-noticed joint statement issued on Jan. 22, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk called for a global response to the emergence of ``irresponsible forces calling for restoration of the totalitarian regime, instigating ethnic discord, xenophobia, chauvinism, and nationalism.''
In a barely disguised reference to Russian government claims to a special role in the former Soviet Union, the two leaders warned of the dangers of ``deepening inter-ethnic conflicts ... attempts to destabilize newly independent states from the outside and to establish `spheres of influence.' ''
Fears of a more assertive Russian attitude toward its neighbors have also been fed by the formation of a more conservative Russian government under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Many prominent members of this government, including the premier himself, are advocates of close economic and political integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which now groups all the former Soviet republics except the three Baltic states.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin already announced this policy aim in his Jan. 11 speech opening the upper house of the new parliament. ``The rapprochement of our states is already under way,'' Mr. Yeltsin said, referring to the commonwealth. ``And Russia's destiny is to be the first among equals.''
The Russian government is vigorously pursuing this goal on a wide range of fronts in the ``near abroad,'' as the Russians refer to their former sister Soviet republics.
The former Soviet republic of Belarus, on the western border of Russia, is closest to full integration. Premier Chernomyrdin is scheduled to go shortly to Minsk to negotiate a package of documents merging the countries' monetary systems. That task has now been eased by the ouster last week of Belarus parliament chairman Stanislav Shushkevich by the Communist-dominated parliament. He was an advocate of a more independent Belarus resisting, for example, joining the commonwealth's collective security pact.
Russian President Yeltsin heads to the Caucasian nation of Georgia this week to sign a package of documents including a treaty of friendship, a free-trade agreement, and pacts formalizing the status of Russian troops to guard Georgia's borders. Russian influence over Georgia has become overwhelming since it helped Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze crush an internal revolt last fall.
The Russian preeminence is also assured by its role as the mediator of an agreement between Georgia and secessionist rebels in the region of Abkhazia. The Abkhazian rebels successfully won control of the region last September, it is widely believed with the active military assistance of Russian Army units. Now Russian negotiators, along with a United Nations mediator, have brought the Abkhazian and Georgian governments to a deal that would de facto remove the region from Georgian control.
In what may be a crucial precedent, the Russian government is seeking UN sanction for the deployment of 2,500 troops as ``peacekeepers'' between Abkhazia and Georgia. The agreement is held up now largely by Abkhazian resistance to a proposal to return some 300,000 Georgian refugees to the region.
The Russians are also proposing to deploy their troops in another Transcaucasian dispute, between the warring forces of Azerbaijan and the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Russian negotiators are currently shuttling between the combatants, trying to gain a cease-fire agreement.
After months of Armenian gains, the Azeri army has mounted a relatively successful offensive in recent weeks.
The surprising Azeri success has prompted a variety of rumors of outside assistance, including of Russian military aid. According to one informed Russian source, Russian arms and personnel were given in exchange for Azeri agreement to oust Western oil companies from a lucrative contract to develop massive new oil fields under the Caspian Sea.
Russian reaction to the Crimean vote has so far been calm, with government spokesmen saying they will ``respect the outcome'' of a ``democratic'' vote. A Foreign Ministry spokesman denied this would lead to a change in Ukraine-Russia relations, Interfax reported.
But the Crimean vote is likely to feed those in Russia who call for a more aggressive defense of the rights of an estimated 25 million Russians living in the former Soviet republics. About 11.3 million of Ukraine's 52 million are ethnic Russians, according to 1989 census data.
The majority of these voted, along with Ukrainians, in favor of independence in a 1991 referendum. But many are now reportedly having second thoughts, encouraged by the relative economic prosperity of Russia to advocate reunification with their Russian ``older brothers.'' At the same time, Ukrainian nationalist sentiments are very strong in the west and center, threatening to geographically divide the country.
The Ukrainian government, weakened by economic collapse and hyperinflation, is particularly vulnerable to such pressures. Parliamentary elections will be held on March 27. Crimean presidential victor Meshkov proposes to hold a referendum simultaneously to approve ``independence'' for Crimea and ``union'' with the commonwealth.
March 7 elections
Kazakhstan also faces similar, though less advertised, threats. Ethnic Russians make up almost 38 percent of the 16.4 million population and, as in Ukraine, are concentrated in the northern part of the country that is a center of heavy industry and mining linked to Russian industry across the border. Local and parliamentary elections are also about to take place on March 7.
There is no report of Kazakh-Russian conflict, and President Nazarbayev enjoys by most accounts great popularity, but the Kazakh leader has also recently warned against attempts to use the elections to inflame ethnic tensions.
Kazakhstan, like its neighbor Turkmenistan, also sits on huge deposits of oil. Both countries are trying to escape Russian control by building a pipeline out through Iran and Turkey, a move Russia quietly opposes.
Moscow is also seeking to gain full control over the Baikonur space facility in Kazakhstan, the Russian military's main launch site. Negotiations on this issue are supposed to conclude before a planned February visit by Yeltsin to Alma-Ata.
``Russia can act as a unifying force by fully recognizing sovereignties, without putting any pressure, and perhaps, sacrificing some of its own interests in the beginning,'' Nazarbayev hopefully expressed to the Itar-Tass news agency at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week.