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The East: Analysis From Washington--Beneath A Daunting Diversity

Washington, 21 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - Just as has been the case every year since the collapse of the USSR, the post-Soviet states in 1999 are likely to continue to become ever more different one from another.

But beneath this increasing diversity, all 15 -- the 12 former Soviet republics and the three Baltic states -- now face three common challenges, each of which appears likely to intensify and generate crises in many of these countries over the next 12 months.

First of all, these countries will be forced to respond to the consequences of this diversity itself, even as many inside and outside the region deny it or even try to reverse this trend.

Second, they will have to deal with the increasing split between popular expectations and political and economic realities. And third, they will have to do so with fewer resources because they appear likely to receive ever less outside assistance and attention.

Dealing with any one of these sets of problems would challenge the capacity of virtually any state. Coping with them all at once is likely to be beyond the capacity of many of these countries. And even the effort to do so may plunge some of them into turmoil.

The diversification of these countries following the demise of the Soviet system should not have surprised anyone. After all, these 15 countries have very different national traditions, and these are reasserting themselves with ever greater force.

But if the diversification was both understood and expected by most of the participants, its consequences have been far greater for them, for their neighbors and for the world at large than many had acknowledged.

For each of the countries, this diversification has opened many questions about just what kind of a society it should have and where it should position itself on the map of the world.

For their neighbors, such questions have opened an even larger number of questions about what kind of relationships should be maintained between and among countries bound together in the past.

And for the larger world, these same questions have challenged assumptions about how this region should be conceived or even whether the former Soviet space remains in any sense a proper region for analysis and political action.

As 1999 dawns, all these questions remain open and thus likely to generate conflict.

The second challenge of post-Soviet development, however, may have even more immediate and severe consequences. In all too many of these countries, popular expectations about democracy and free markets have run into some harsh realities.

In some post-Soviet countries, this revolution of rising expectations has led ever more people to think about challenging the ruling elites, many if not most of whom are holdovers from the former system even if they have proclaimed their allegiance to a new one.

In others, this clash between hope and reality has led to demobilization of public opinion, a situation in which governments find it hard if not impossible to generate support and thus open themselves to a different kind of instability.

And in a few, this contrast has allowed some political figures to generate support by identifying one or another group as a scapegoat or by seeking to return to a past that was never as good as they present it or as those now suffering appear to believe.

But in almost every case, the differences between hope and reality are generating conflicts that governments currently lack the resources they would need to overcome these problems quickly.

And that situation in turn is likely to get worse during the next twelve month. Given the financial crisis in Russia, fewer Western governments and fewer outside firms are likely to supply the kind of assistance that many in this region would need to stave off a crisis.

Moreover -- and in a reflection of the difficulties many have in making distinctions across this area -- these same governments and firms are likely to reach judgments about all the countries of this region on the basis of what has happened in the Russian Federation.

Even if some outside sources do in the end provide more help, it will likely come with more strings attached, something certain to offend many if not all of the political elite and populations -- even those who acknowledge that such strings may be necessary.

And that response too will put additional strain on the political and economic systems of these states, driving some into crisis while forcing others to face up to their difficulties in one or another way.

The difficulties that many of these countries are likely to have in 1999 undoubtedly may lead some to argue that these countries would be better off back together.

But the enormous differences in the ways in which they are likely to respond during the next year as in the past in fact will be yet another indication of why that outcome, among all the possible ones, is perhaps the least likely of all.