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Analysis From Washington: A Decade of National Assertiveness

Washington, 18 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Ten years ago this week, a demonstration in a place few people had ever heard of about an issue even fewer thought important set in motion forces that continue to transform the world.

On December 17, 1986, thousands of Kazakhs flowed into the streets of Alma-Ata -- now known as Almaty -- to protest Moscow's decision to fire longtime Kazakhstan Communist party chief Dinmukhammed Kunayev, an ethnic Kazakh, and to install in his place Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian with no previous ties to that republic.

In the ensuing clashes between the demonstrators and the authorities, many people died. And along with them died some assumptions then strongly held in Moscow, in the West, and in the non-Russian republics of the USSR.

For Moscow, the Alma-Ata demonstrations undermined the self-confident belief that national identities among Soviet citizens were a "survival of the past" and could be ignored in policy-making.

For the West, the violence in the Kazakhstan capital called into question Western assumptions that Mikhail Gorbachev could liberalize the Soviet Union without destroying it in the process.

And for the non-Russians on the periphery, the demonstrations in Kazakhstan shattered the notion that the Soviet Union would always exist and that the non-Russians had no choice but to follow Moscow's dictates.

And because these assumptions died so too did the Soviet Union albeit five years later.

Among the Soviet elite, this belated recognition of the power of nationalism led some conservatives to place their bets on Russian nationalism as the basis of power. And it led Gorbachev, a man with no experience or understanding of ethnicity, sometimes to make concessions and sometimes to crack down on the Soviet Union's many ethnic groups.

Indeed, Gorbachev's handling of the Alma-Ata events underscored his inability to manage this situation.

Having argued that he had to send in Kolbin because there was no one he could trust locally and having backed the use of force against the demonstrators, Gorbachev quickly backed down and appointed an ethnic Kazakh as the Kazakhstan party organization's second secretary.

Because many Kazakhs -- and others -- saw that move as a concession to pressure, Gorbachev virtually invited them to put even more pressure on him.

And that along with the growing reliance of the Soviet state on one strain of authoritarian Russian nationalism also helped speed the demise of the USSR.

Among Western observers, the growing realization that a liberal Soviet Union would be a contradiction in terms led some to become opponents of any national assertiveness by non-Russians and apologists for continuing authoritarianism.

At the same time, this recognition of the impossibility of a liberalized Soviet Union led others to focus more attention on the non-Russian peoples of the empire and even to become advocates of a managed devolution of power from the decaying Soviet center.

This split in the West also hastened the end of the Soviet Union for two reasons. On the one hand, it encouraged Gorbachev to believe that he could rely on the West even when he cracked down on nationalist assertiveness. On the other, it encouraged non-Russians and anti-Soviet Russians to pursue their own goals.

And among the non-Russians, the sense generated by the Alma-Ata events that the Soviet Union might eventually cease to exist encouraged ever more of them to press for their own independence as a way out the often terrible situations in which they found themselves.

But if Alma-Ata destroyed certain assumptions, it also created at least one new one that continues to have profound consequences.

Prior to Alma-Ata, many in Moscow, the West and the non-Russian republics tended to ignore ethnicity as a factor in Soviet developments. After it, however, all tended to see ethnicity as the prime moving force in all areas and to ignore other factors.

As a result, some in Moscow and the West became dismissive of any change or demand precisely because it was couched in ethnic terms.

And many in the non-Russian republics came to believe that ethnic independence was both an end in itself and the solution to all problems.

But now on the tenth anniversary of the Alma-Ata demonstrations, the limitations of such views are increasingly obvious as are both the good and bad consequences of those events.