Nations battle for Moscow's lost empire: Tony Barber reports on the struggle for territory among peoples emerging from the shadow of communism

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far- away country between people of whom we know nothing

Neville Chamberlain, in a radio broadcast about Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, 27 September 1938

IF THE Germans and Czechoslovaks seemed far away in 1938, how about the Kumyks and Laks of Karaman-Tyube in 1992? In the former autonomous Soviet republic of Dagestan, across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan, these two Caucasian peoples have been going at it hammer and tongs in recent months.

The Kumyks want the annulment of a decree that awarded the Laks a patch of what the Kumyks say is their historic territory. The Laks think justice is on their side because the Dagestan parliament bounced them out of the nearby Akin district in favour of the Chechens, a nation deported by Josef Stalin in 1944.

However obscure these quarrels seem, they typify the ethnic rivalry and political disorder that have swept over the former Soviet Union since its collapse last December. Scores of national and territorial disputes have burst into the open, provoking a breakdown of law and order in some areas and virtual civil war in others. To take another example in Dagestan: local authorities imposed a state of emergency in May after the Shamil Popular Front, a group named after a nineteenth- century hero of Caucasian resistance to Russian imperialism, kidnapped the public prosecutor of the capital, Makhachkala.

Many disputes are rooted in rivalries that existed long before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin, who ruled from 1924 to 1953, made things worse by drawing up internal Soviet borders that ignored ethnic boundaries, and by sheer terror - killings, forced collectivisation of farms, and the removal of entire nations to Siberia and Central Asia.

In the Baltic states - not members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - heavy Russian immigration and the Soviet army's presence kept tensions high after Stalin's death. Latvians, who made up 77 per cent of their republic's population when Moscow annexed it in 1940, are now down to 52 per cent; Estonians are not much above 60 per cent. New problems have arisen since independence because the non-communist governments have adopted citizenship and voting laws that Slavs who arrived after the annexations say will work against them. In Lithuania, the Polish minority that lives in former Polish land around Vilnius also alleges discrimination.

A serious problem rests in the presence of 120,000 ex-Soviet soldiers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have a combined population of only 8 million. Russia says it will withdraw the men but needs time, because the pull- out of hundreds of thousands of troops from Germany, Eastern Europe and Mongolia means that there is a shortage of jobs and housing back home. The Balts fear a plot to keep the 'occupation armies' in place. Should the withdrawal be delayed for much longer, it is not hard to imagine violence between Russian soldiers and local people.

In the CIS itself, some Russian politicians would feel tempted to intervene if ethnic Russians in other republics were in danger. The protection of Russians - in Ukraine, where they are more than 20 per cent of the 52 million people, in Moldova, where they fear assimilation into an enlarged Romania, or in Kazakhstan, where many support Cossack autonomy movements in the Uralsk region - has assumed great importance for Russian leaders since the Soviet Union's demise. Boris Yeltsin's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, said recently: 'Until Russia guarantees the protection of its citizens wherever they live, there will be conflicts on the former territory of the Soviet Union and there will be thousands of refugees.'

Russian and Ukrainian leaders have so far contained their dispute over the Crimean peninsula, transferred to Ukraine in 1954 in an act many Russians regard as illegal. But a Russian autonomy movement is active in Crimea, and the problem is complicated by the return of Crimean Tatars to their homeland almost half a century after Stalin deported their parents and grandparents, accusing them of supporting the Nazis.

Mr Yeltsin faces a variety of separatisms in Russia itself - a response to the crushing centralisation of the Soviet period. Tatarstan, 500 miles east of Moscow, voted for independence last March, though it seems to have in mind something short of full statehood. Some Tatar politicians hope for a confederation with neighbouring Bashkortostan, a proposal that has stoked Bashkir fears of assimilation by the more numerous Tatars and put on guard the 40 per cent Russian minority in both republics.

Further east, an Independent Siberia Party has sprung up and prosecutors in Tomsk have said they may file charges against Siberian secessionists. Pressure for autonomy in Yakutia has arisen because the Yakuts resent having to sell gold and diamonds to Russia at prices below world levels. There are also calls for a Urals republic and a Far Eastern republic on Russia's Pacific coast. Ethnic Germans - whom Stalin also deported - are meanwhile aiming for autonomy in the Volgograd and Saratov regions.

For the most part, little outright violence has broken out in these areas. The worst conflicts are raging to the south, in Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Moldovan war has turned especially nasty, with hundreds believed to have died in recent weeks. Russian-speakers set up a breakaway Dnestr republic in 1990 and have won support from the former 14th Soviet Army still based in Moldova. Mr Yeltsin has warned Moldova's leaders that Russia 'cannot remain idle' if the fighting continues.

Thousands have died in four years of war between Azeris and Armenians over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. Armenian forces opened a corridor this year between the enclave and Armenia, but Azeris counter-attacked. Elsewhere in Azerbaijan, clashes broke out in May between Azeris and Kurds who want the restoration of the autonomous Kurdish region that existed from 1923 to 1929. Georgia faces problems on several fronts at once. It is at war with its South Ossetian minority, who are fighting to join North Ossetia in Russia, and has had to grapple with unrest in Abkhazia as well. Fighting has gone on for months between allies and foes of the ousted president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia; there was an attempted coup in his favour last month.

The mountain peoples of the Caucasus - Abkhazi, Adigei, Abaza, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush and Kabardians - have tried to solve their problems by forming a political union, but the potential for conflict is still high. The Chechen-Ingush republic has split in two, and the Ingush continue to lay claim to the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia.

In Central Asia, Tajikistan may be close to breaking up: the Uzbeks of the Leninabad region have threatened to secede to Uzbekistan, and there is an independence movement in Badakhstan. Two years ago about 200 people were killed in Kyrgyz-Uzbek violence in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, where there is also pressure to merge with Uzbekistan.

Across the CIS, a serious risk is that the conflicts will not just set one nation against another but will suck in outside powers such as Turkey and Romania. Against that, few countries want to damage the improved international climate of recent years and get embroiled in expensive, murderous conflicts. Inside the former Soviet Union, however, the passions unleashed by the collapse of a repressive empire are proving too intense to contain.

(Photograph omitted)