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.

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.

Sakha-Yakutia's leadership first flexed its muscles in August 1990, when a Declaration of Sovereignty was adopted. At the same time its name changed to include Sakha - the word for the territory used by indigenous Yakuts, who number about 350,000.

Despite the declaration, true economic sovereignty did not come until after the failed August 1991 putsch led to the destruction of the old Soviet political system. Sakha-Yakutia in March 1992 was one of the signatories of the Russian Federation Treaty, under which autonomous regions gained increasing rights, such as control over mineral resources.

But Moscow and Yakutsk continued to clash, mainly because about 98 percent of Russia's diamonds - a big source of hard currency earnings - are mined in Sakha-Yakutia.

After tough negotiations, however, the two sides agreed on joint control of the diamond industry through a monopoly company called Diamonds of Russia and Sakha.

Sakha-Yakutia leaders say they want to preserve the status quo. But they, as well as many officials from other autonomous republics, fear the proposed new Russian constitution would wipe out all the gains made over the past two years. Any attempt to restore the all-powerful role of the central government would be "opposed with all political means at our disposal," says External Relations Minister Artamonov.

Pressure has already been felt by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. At a meeting with autonomous republic leaders Feb. 9, Mr. Yeltsin failed to gain support for his proposed April referendum on the framework for a new constitution.

The rebuff from the autonomous republics, including Sakha-Yakutia, was a serious blow to Mr. Yeltsin, who wants the referendum to establish Russia as a presidential republic. Following the meeting, he announced he was willing to forego holding a referendum if a compromise on constitutional issues could be reached with his adversaries in Russia's parliament.

Although prospects for a constitutional referendum appear to be fading, some of Sakha-Yakutia's leaders say other developments could cause the current situation to unravel. Privately, some worry that independence-minded zealots in other autonomous republics - particularly Tatarstan and Chechnya - will spark a chain reaction resulting in the Russian Federation's disintegration.

Meanwhile, republican officials are concerned about the decline in Yeltsin's authority, seen in his inability to win support for the April referendum.

"If the current power is swept away we don't know what will follow it," says Vladislav Shamshin, who oversees the republic's diamond industry as deputy minister of industry and geology. Mr. Shamshin added if nationalists come to power in Moscow it would increase the risk of civil war.

"A civil war in 1918 is one thing, it's something totally different these days," he says, referring to the internecine warfare that swept Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution. "Look at Yugoslavia. If something like that starts in Russia it'll mean the apocalypse."

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