There are times when the issues we analyze as scholars suddenly become front-page news. This has happened to me with the increase of ethnic protests in the Soviet Union. Balts, Armenians, and others, are in the news daily and commentators are debating what their demands mean for the future of the Gorbachev program. What indeed?
I shall venture an analysis, but with a disclaimer that much is uncertain due to the fluidity of events and the continuing lack of comprehensive information from the Soviet political scene. Part of what I say may be dated by the time this is printed.
Gorbachev has called the nationalities problem “the most fundamental, vital issue of our society.” Even though the multiethnic dimension of Soviet politics has now become more apparent, it has always been there. Non-Russians make up half of the Soviet population and most live in their traditional homelands currently constituting federal subunits of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” It is quite natural that their political role becomes more prominent in the course of a program emphasizing democratization; it is also natural that their views can differ from those of the center (Rothschild, 1981). Those commentators who depict the nationalities as spoilers endangering Gorbachev's reforms seem to think that democratization is possible without the participation of all segments of society.
Events in the non-Russian republics of the USSR can be properly analyzed only within the context of political change at the center of power in Moscow.