As Germany is coming together with the speed of an express train, theSoviet Union is coming apart.
The latest upsurge of nationalist violence in remote Tadzhikistan comes in the very week when the leaders of the two Germanys meeting in Bonn, and of the Eastern and Western alliances in Ottawa, took giant steps toward German reunification this year, thus changing the map of Europe.
President Mikhail Gorbachev has called for new laws to curb ethnic rioting, but with or without them, the actual and threatening nationalist conflicts now facing Gorbachev are daunting.
In the Caucuses, Soviet troops are still in Azerbaijan, whose dispute with neighboring Armenia over territories could flare up again at any moment. In the Baltic states, Lithuania will elect a new Supreme Soviet (legislature) later this month in what is expected to be another step toward a declaration of independence.
The rioting in Tadzhikistan shows that it takes only a drop to make the dam overflow in the Moslem republics of Central Asia. The drop too many in Tadzhikistan was a rumor that Armenian families were to be lodged in some shabby new apartments for which native Tadzhik families had been waiting for several years. First it was the Armenians who were attacked on the streets, then "the Russians," anyone, in fact, with a lighter skin, whether he be a Balt or Ukrainian.
The Armenians in question were not recent arrivals at all, but refugees left homeless from the 1989 earthquake, initially welcomed with great sympathy in Tadzhikistan as in other parts of the Soviet Union. Since then, however, a lot has happened, first of all the violent clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Moslem cousins of the Tadzhiks, and the dispatch of Soviet troops to Azerbaijan's capital of Baku.
"Since then, it has become Moscow against Central Asia, Europe against Asia, Christians against Moslems," wrote correspondent Bernard Guetta of the French newspaper Le Monde in the best account I've read, "a conflict with a colonial resonance in which Armenians, Christians and enemies of the Azeris, were automatically placed in the camp of the colonialists."
Other demands then surfaced, for the firing of local government and Communist Party officials, for the opening of the border with Afghanistan where many Tadzhiks also live, for increased use of the Tadzhik language.
The rioting spread to other parts of Tadzhikistan. Reports of similar outbreaks against Armenians also came from neighboring Kirghizia.
Gorbachev has been able to use some of the recent ethnic unrest to mute criticism of his policies at home in the Russian republic. But at some point, it could become counter-productive, if it hasn't already.
Another spectre it raises is of a smaller Soviet Union, shorn perhaps of its Baltic republics and threatened by the loss as well of some of the Moslem areas added to the Russian empire in the 19th century at the same time other European states were acquiring empires in the Middle East, Africa and the Far East.
Most other colonized peoples have regained their independence, but a century or more of occupation and 70 years of Communist rule apparently convinced the leaders in Moscow that their policies had erased local nationalisms. Gorbachev is now finding out that it isn't so, and he may not succeed in containing them within a looser, more equal federation.
Smaller or not, the future Soviet Union is not likely to have the same dominant influence in the countries of Eastern Europe that have been busy shucking off their own Communist parties.
What this will mean to the future map of Europe we can only speculate. But it is not too far-fetched to see the Germans moving back into the vacuum that the Russians have left. Before World War II, German influence was predominant in Central and much of Eastern Europe. It may be again.
The events of last week virtually assured that Germany will be reunited this year, but one big question remains - whether it will remain in the Western NATO alliance or become neutral, a question that also involves whether and how many U.S. troops stay in Europe.
The United States insists that a united Germany remain and so, for now, does the West German government. The opposition Social Democrats appear to be wavering, and a poll last week suggested that 58 percent of West Germans and 92 percent of East Germans wanted neutrality.
While official Washington seems to believe that this, too, shall pass, that the Russians will again give in, the very possibility of a neutral Germany opens a whole new realm of speculation that has already begun about a revival of the entente cordiale between Britain and France and a strengthening of their Atlantic ties with America.
All this is groping in the dark as the express train thunders down upon us.