Washington, 17 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Thirteen years ago today, a clash between demonstrators and the militia in Almaty put an end to the Soviet "nationality question" as it had been traditionally understood and pointed toward the eventual demise of the Soviet empire.
Until December 17, 1986, Soviet leaders had proudly claimed that they had "solved" the "nationality question," and most in the West assumed that ethnic problems there were simply a human rights issue. But after that date, both Moscow and the West recognized that what each had viewed as a minor concern had become the central issue of Soviet life.
The events in Kazakhstan on that day were dramatic enough. Thousands of Kazakhs poured into the streets of Almaty and other cities in Kazakhstan to protest the unilateral decision by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to name Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian, as party chief in place of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, an ethnic Kazakh.
Until that time, Russians and non-Russians alike had accepted such decisions without protest. But over the previous generation, both had come to accept the principle that the party leader of a union republic should be a member of the titular nationality, even if real power remained in Moscow and in the hands of an ethnic Russian second secretary on the scene.
In the name of fighting an entrenched, corrupt and deeply conservative bureaucracy, Gorbachev violated that rule, arguing that only an outsider could clean up the mess that Kunayev had created. But faced with massive public opposition to what he had done, the Soviet leader displayed three qualities which ineluctably led to the end of the USSR.
First, by his actions from the beginning and by the way he discussed this event, Gorbachev demonstrated to all that he had little understanding of the importance of ethnic ties for increasingly more Soviet citizens or any willingness to take these attachments into consideration as he elaborated his new policies.
Second, Gorbachev refused to sanction the kind of massive crackdown that might have intimidated the Kazakhs and others. Faced with several hundred dead on the first days of the clashes between Kazakhs and the militia, he refused to order the kind of repression that had been second nature to those who came before him.
And third, the then-new Soviet leader immediately undercut his own claims that he could not find a reliable Kazakh by naming an ethnic Kazakh as Kolbin's second secretary. In doing so, Gorbachev unintentionally encouraged resistance to his own policies, particularly among non-Russian elites who felt that he was a clear threat to their interests.
Within a remarkably short time, people in the other 11 Soviet republics and three occupied Baltic states began to act on the lessons of Almaty. Party and Soviet leaders in all of them understood that they could build up their own power relative to Moscow by playing on the growing nationalism of their own populations.
And the non-Russian populations themselves recognized that for the first time, they could act against the Soviet system with relative impunity and that such actions on their part could in fact gain them the concessions that they sought.
In some, the party elite took the lead; in others, the people; and in still a third, the two combined. But in all, the result was the same: a heightened sense of nationalism, on the one hand, and a recognition that Moscow was no longer all powerful or even willing to take the actions necessary to stop them, on the other.
Within five years of the Almaty clashes, the Soviet Union no longer existed, testimony of the remarkable power of the previously powerless who gain the courage to act in defense of their interests, and the impotence of the powerful when they are unwilling or unable to act in defense of theirs.