Reading a road map of human misery: communism’s failure looses a tide of refugees

Reading a road map of human misery: communism’s failure looses a tide of refugees

William H. Luers

The demise of the Soviet empire and the collapse of the Soviet economy are creating a human tragedy of enormous proportions. Three hundred million people are increasingly disoriented and dislocated; more than 600,000 Soviet citizens now are on the move within the country, and an additional 500,000 are expected to emigrate this year, fleeing from unemployment ethnic violence religious prejudice and poisoned land, air and water. As this human tragedy spills across the Soviet borders, it presents a problem for Europe and the United States.

This migration within the U.S.S.R. does not approach the scale of Stalin’s forced collectivization, industrialization and permanent purges; nor does it compare with the horrors of World War II. But the forces behind the mounting migration and emigration create a road map through the human landscape of a collapsing political and economic system:

* Nationalism and ethnic conflict. Since 1988 tension menia and Azerbaijan, compounded by the 1988 Armenian earthquake, have displaced nearly a million people. If the flight of Russians, Ukrainians and other Russian-speaking Slavs from the mostly Muslim Central Asian Republics, the Tuva region of Siberia and Moldavia are added to that, a much vaster migration is under way. Sixty million Soviet citizens, 25 million of them Russians, do not live in their ethnic homelands, and Soviet citizens of mixed ethnic background are finding it difficult to find homes.

* Military demobilization. The relocation of hundreds of thousands of troops and the planned reduction of the 4 million-strong Soviet armed forces dissent and social confusion. Soviet troops in Central Europe do not want to return home with their families to live in tents this winter. Soviets in the eastern part of Germany already are resisting repatriation. Within the Soviet Union, non-Russian troop summoned home to their own republics.

* Environmental damage. Radiation from the Chernobyl disaster damaged vast areas of the Ukraine and Byelorussia, and experts believe as many as 2 million people will have to be relocated to protect them from radiation sickness. In addition, glasnost has revealed polluted lakes, rivers and lands that are so toxic they are life-threatening.

* Economics. Over the next two years, as economic reforms begin to cut out inefficient industries, productivity declines even more rapidly, food becomes scarcer and unemployment rises into the millions, people will be forced to move.

* Fear and disorientation. As nationalist passions grow and Marxist-Leninist ideology disappears, individuals and groups increasingly will be driven by disorientation and fear. The Jewish population in many parts of the U.S.S.R. already is frightened – nearly 200,000 Jews will leave this year, and more will emigrate next year. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Communist Party and secret police stalwarts are likely to use their travel privileges to escape rather than face trials, retribution and purges from an increasing hostile populace. Where they will end up, however, is uncertain.

The Soviet arm is uniquely illequipped to halt this spontaneous movement of millions of people. Stalinist habits still permeate the society: Internal passports limit the movement of people and determine who is permitted to live in the major cities. Chronic housing shortages, along with government controls over access to schools, medical care and child care, limit local governments’ ability to respond. This fall, the Soviet parliament will pass a long-awaited emigration bill that will permit Soviets to leave the nation. As a result, emigration could reach 4 million to 5 million’

The free movement of peoples from the East has been a fundamental principle of Western policy for more than 20 years, but now Europe and America must decide where large numbers of Soviet emigrants will go – and how they will enter other nations. Some will emigrate legally to Israel and the West. Many will go to Europe and the U.S. as tourists, guests, lecturers or students and remain, as many Asians, Africans and Latin Americans have in the past. Others could begin illegally crossing borders to Eastern Europe and then to the West.

The Soviet and republic governments cannot control the outflow, nor will they want to, since it releases economic and social pressures. The greatest cost to the U.S.S.R. will be the brain drain; large numbers of Soviet intellectuals already are seeking study and research grants in the West, never to return.

As this great escape materializes, the Oder-Neisse Line between Germany and Poland will come to seem like the Rio Grande. The westward surge of hundreds of thousands-eventually millions-will test the European democracies and also the United States. Immigration may be the most troubling political issue in Europe today. The debate on the future of European unity is not only about monetary union; it also is about whether and how to deal with the East’s people and its economic collapse. Germany and other nations must be prepared to debate whether to become multiethnic societies.

No amount of economic reform in the East or aid from the West can stop this new emigration. We do not know how this surge of refugees, added to the already high tide from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, will affect the choices and the politics of Europe and America. But we do know that the industrial societies still need large numbers of productive individuals. We also know from our own history that the people of Eastern Europe make productive, hard-working citizens of democratic societies.


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