- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Ten years ago today (New Years Day 1992) I heard the official news that the Soviet Union had disbanded. I heard it from Kalashnikov-brandishing guards in the basement of the Georgian parliament building in Tiblisi. I was there interviewing their boss, Zviad Gamsakurdia, Georgia's first elected president; he was fighting for his political life against armed rebels who subsequently brought Eduard Shevarnadze back to power.

The Georgians had heard on the radio that the United States had just recognized the independence of their country. They understood that meant the Soviet Union was dead. And they were very, very happy.

As my crew and I left the parliament building, hidden in an ambulance racing under sniper fire, it did not immediately occur to me that we had just seen the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union. But, looking back a decade later, that is exactly what it was.

There aftermath of the Soviet state has not been free of violence in the Caucasus, certainly, as well as Tajikistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. But, given the dangers of a violent break up in a nuclear-armed state, what's most impressive is how peaceful it was.

Indeed, compare it with breakup of Yugoslavia, a much smaller country and one without nuclear weapons. The wars between Croatia and Serbia, in Bosnia and in Kosovo left hundreds of thousands dead.

That didn't happen in the Soviet Union. Why not?

In large measure because, as it approached the precipice of the breakup, the Russian Federation was governed democratically.

That cannot be said of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic when Yugoslavia was splitting up.

In 1991, the Russian Federation was the largest, most powerful, and best-armed of the Soviet Union's 15 republics. If it had decided to try to keep the U.S.S.R. together by force, it had the capability to make a real fight, just as Mr. Milosevic did. Given the overwhelming desire of people from Ukraine to Kyrgystan to be free of Russian domination, Russia might not have prevailed. But the fight could have killed millions and left a bitter legacy of ethnic and national enmity that would have fueled conflict for a generation or more.

But it didn't happen because the Russians, led by Boris Yeltsin, were willing to let the other 14 republics go peacefully. His later actions from bombing the Parliament to bombing Chechnya compromised his democratic credibility. But there can be no doubt that in 1991, when the way in which the Soviet Union would dissolve was decided, Mr. Yeltsin led a democratic government.

Mr. Yeltsin and his parliament were chosen in elections that were internationally recognized as fair and free. More importantly, he had come to power after a highly contested campaign in which he defeated the establishment of the day: Mikhail Gorbachev's reforming communists and the diehard supporters of the old system. Again, that's very different from the way Mr. Milosevic came to power, through the machinations of the Yugoslav Communist Party.

Before going to Georgia in December 1991, I had reported on the changes in the Soviet Union, covering the attempted coup against Mr. Gorbachev in August of that year as well as election campaigns in the provinces. I heard again and again from ordinary Russians their desire for freedom and a better life. Keeping control of far-flung real estate and of people who also wanted freedom was not high on their agendas.

So, in almost predictably democratic fashion, the democratically elected Yeltsin government supported the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union.

This is more than just a footnote to one of the bigger events of the 20th century for two reasons.

First, it sheds light on the debate about whether Soviet communist reformers like Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin, unlike their Chinese comrades, were right to put democracy before economic reform.

There is much evidence that, economically, most Russian people have suffered, in many cases seriously, from their leaders approach of putting democracy first.

But that analysis ignores the dangers to life and livelihoods posed by a violent break up of the Soviet Union. In 1991, that danger was conjectural. Looking back 10 years, with the knowledge of what happened in Yugoslavia, it seems much more real.

Second, the importance of democracy in promoting peace in the former Soviet Union is relevant to the current debates about the lack of democracy in the Arab world of the Middle East. It should not surprise us that authoritarian governments use hostility toward outsiders to maintain themselves in power. That's exactly what Mr. Milosevic did for more than a decade in Yugoslavia.

But it should reinforce our confidence that promoting democracy in the Middle East would promote peace there as well.

There is much hand-wringing today about stability in Saudi Arabia. What if the king were deposed? What kind of government would come next and would it be good for the United States?

After the 1999 war in Kosovo, the same question was asked about Serbia. If there were real democratic elections and Mr. Milosevic fell, who would take control? Was the pro-West democratic opposition in Serbia up to it, or would more even more nationalistic forces come to power? Was it "safe" to have democratic elections there?

Troubling questions but they miss the point.

Did the West know who would follow the communist dictators in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union? Of course not. But it still opposed dictatorship and supported democracy. It did the same in Serbia.

The lesson of the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union is that democracy is about more than values. It's a critically important strategy for promoting peace and protecting American security.

Sheilah Kast is a journalist who reported for ABC News from 1981 to 1997, primarily from Washington.


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