Ethnic disturbances pose “the most immediate threat to Gorbachev, the one thing that could put him out of power,” said the Deputy Director of the CIA, Robert M. Gates. Zbigniew Brzezinski and other US analysts concurred. The recent ethnic strife in Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Romania, Bulgaria, even Yugoslavia is, in the words of The New York Times, endangering the “process of gradual change in Eastern Europe.”

But are expectations of “gradual change” in the Communist world realistic? In Yugoslavia, for long a showcase of the US State Department (“nudging towards change”), 40 years of glasnost and perestroika have brought no lessening in Communist Party control over the lives of ordinary Yugoslavs. Between Milan Kucan, the “liberal” Communist leader of the northern Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, and Slobodan Milosevic, the “Stalinist” Serbian strongman, the only differences are in how to make Communism work. In Slovenia’s case, the economy has been made to function well (on a Western European level), but Slovenes like Janez Janca, Ivan Borstner, and Franci Zavrl were sentenced to prison for having demanded a democratic Yugoslavia.

Yet Gorbachev seems to be expected, by the CIA no less than by other US policymakers, to miraculously transform the USSR from an international bully into a mercantile partner. Even Slobodan Milosevic is seen, by some Western reporters, as a “Gorbachevian” liberal, because of his announced desire to make the Yugoslav economy more free.

One Yugoslav dissident, however, puts these maneuvers in perspective: “They [the Communists] want to make Yugoslavia something like South Korea—a dictatorship with a powerhouse economy.” Unfortunately, Gorbachev (who spent his March 1988 visit to Yugoslavia mostly in Slovenia) seems merely to want the USSR to be able to deliver microchips and butter, as well as AK-47’s and ICBM’s.

But are the 70 years of Soviet imperial aggression an outcome of the lack of oranges in Moscow, or does the problem lie deeper? Are Armenians, Poles, Letts, or Serbs to be sacrificed forever to the fleeting goodwill of a world power that has “restructured” itself from a tsarist hegemony into a socialist one? Helping democracy in the USSR—which involves not hindering its movements for ethnic self-determination—may not look entirely “safe,” but it is, in the long run, much safer than facing a transmogrified, expansionist empire, often less than willing to hide its true designs. (MS)