In Siberia, Diamonds Form Rock-Hard Base for Autonomy
But officials in vast region worry about prospects for civil war
IN the republic of Sakha-Yakutia, when people speak about "the west" they mean the European part of Russia.Skip to next paragraph
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This Eastern Siberian territory is six time zones from Moscow, but its vastness - it is almost six times the size of France - makes it seem even more far-removed from the Russian capital.
The remoteness has helped the 1.2 million people of Sakha-Yakutia take advantage of the political changes in Moscow to steadily gain a degree of economic autonomy not felt here since Russian adventurers conquered the indigenous Yakuts more than 350 years ago.
But now Sakha-Yakutia's leadership is facing the ironic possibility of receiving more than they wanted - not just economic autonomy, but complete independence.
With the Russian Federation wracked by political and economic crisis (Power struggle, Page 6.), centrifugal forces are growing on its 16 so-called autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, of which Sakha-Yakutia is the largest.
Some republics - especially Tatarstan and Chechnya - are actively pursuing independence from Russia. Other regions, such as Sakha-Yakutia, do not want a complete break. Yet some in Yakutsk, Sakha-Yakutia's capital, worry they are headed, albeit against their will, in that direction.
"Yakutia is not a leader of the independence movement," says Gavril Struchkov, editor in chief of Sakhaada, a Yakutsk newspaper. "But we could survive on our own if we are pushed in that direction by the center."
While Sakha-Yakutia's top officials express satisfaction over control of the republic's economy, they stress that they do not desire political independence in the immediate future.
The same conditions that facilitated the gaining of economic autonomy from Moscow - size and distance from the capital - could present great difficulties if the republic gained complete independence. Securing the border, for example, would be virtually impossible, officials say.
A cultural awakening is taking place among native Yakuts, but separatist sentiment is minimal. The fact that Slavs, including Russians and Ukrainians, comprise roughly 70 percent of the population also dampens the desire for total independence.
"We would like to see a Great Russia based on strong and sovereign republics in it," said Sakha-Yakutia Minister of External Relations Vitaly Artamonov. "Russia is like an elderly mother whose children have learned to walk. It's now time for us to help our mother."
BUT with conservatives and nationalists gaining increasing influence in Moscow, to what extent the Russian leadership will continue to tolerate Sakha-Yakutia's economic autonomy is uncertain. Some in Moscow, fearing that current trends will result in the breakup of the Russian Federation, want to promulgate a new Russian constitution reestablishing a strong federal government.
"There are groups that don't want to recognize the sovereignty of the republics," says Afanasy Illarionov, legal adviser to Sakha-Yakutia President Mikhail Nikolayev.
"Trying to impose some decision on us would actually lead to the collapse of Russia. It'd be ruinous," Mr. Illarionov says of the constitutional project.