A Russian Republic Looks Away

Leaders in the Karelian Republic find Moscow unresponsive. Their search for cooperation elsewhere is straining the federation.

The only sound in Deputy Karelian Parliament Chairwoman Tatyana Kalashnik's office is from a ticking clock and cars crunching over the snowy street below.

It has been about 30 seconds since Ms. Kalashnik stopped talking. She is relaxed in her chair, thinking. At one point she straightens up behind her desk and opens her mouth as if to speak. But then she checks herself and goes back to thinking.

The question that has caused Kalashnik to pause is: How can Russia solve the current constitutional crisis?

"If I saw a way out, then I'd be above the president, [Constitutional Court Chairman Valery] Zorkin, and the [Russian parliament] chairman," she finally says in an exasperated tone.

Kalashnik's is a typical response of officials in the Karelian Republic, a semi-autonomous Russian region of 850,000 people, situated along the border with Finland. The political gridlock in Moscow - caused by the power struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and the parliament - has left many here in a quandary.

The conservative Karelian political leadership has traditionally been deeply faithful to the Russian Federation and to central authorities in Moscow, but their loyalties are now under strain. Officials in the Russian capital, it is widely felt here, are too absorbed in political intrigues to pay adequate attention to the needs of Russia's regions and autonomous republics.

As a result, Karelian leaders say they have no choice but to pursue policies that could weaken the Russian Federation's integrity. With Russia's economic crisis deepening, Karelia has started to explore a regional solution, including pressing for closer ties with neighboring Finland. Karelia enjoys a unique relationship to Finland because of close cultural and linguistic links between Finns and Karelian ethnic minorities. Parts of Karelia belonged to Finland but were seized by the Soviet Union during Wor ld War II.

"It's a vicious circle," says Alexei Morozov, Karelia's deputy minister for external relations. The longer the political paralysis in Moscow lasts, he says, the greater the impulse for regional leaders to seek solutions independently from Moscow, which in turn will make it more difficult for the central leadership to keep Russia intact.

"If [the leaders in Moscow] don't find agreement soon, the situation will be a grave one in all of Russia," says Mr. Morozov, one of many officials who say the federation could splinter.

The special session of the Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's highest legislative body, could provide the clear answers that officials here are looking for. The Congress gets underway March 10 and is to decide whether or not to hold a nationwide constitutional referendum in April.

Ending the power struggle in Moscow would be only part of what is needed to prevent the disintegration of Russia, officials say. All sides also must honor the Federation Treaty signed last May, which calls for the devolution of centralized powers as a way to ensure continued cooperation between the regional and federal government.

The document was signed by all Russian regional leaders - except those from the independence-minded republics of Tatarstan and Chechnya.

Some Karelian leaders, especially Kalashnik, complain that Moscow is not living up to its commitments and is still trying to impose decisions on the regions. "It's too early to assess it," says Minister for External Affairs Valery Shlyamin of the treaty's viability. "But if you think we don't have doubts, you're wrong."

Karelian officials are particularly concerned about attempts by some in Moscow to renege on a proviso to include the Federation Treaty in its entirety in Russia's new constitution. The constitution's latest draft incorporates only parts of the Federation Treaty, prompting regional officials to fear that Moscow is trying to recover some of its lost authority.

An attempt by Moscow to alter the spirit of the Federation Treaty would accelerate the centrifugal trends working on Russia, Morozov says.

"People in the republics are quite serious about the treaty," he says. "The people in Moscow must also take it seriously."

Fears that a new constitution may diminish regional powers are part of the reason President Yeltsin's proposed April constitutional referendum is meeting stiff opposition from Karelian leaders. Karelian Parliament Chairman Viktor Stepanov and others say publicly they oppose the referendum because it would fragment society.

Kalashnik, Mr. Shlyamin, and others say Karelia will do everything possible to help preserve the federation. They recoil at suggestions Karelia is developing an alternative economic strategy.

"If everyone started working out a contingency plan, then it would result in the breakup of Russia," Kalashnik says.

But the actions of Karelia's leaders belie their cautious words. Efforts to form a regional economic cooperation sphere - incorporating Karelia and neighboring regions such as Murmansk, Archangelsk, Vologda, and the Komi Autonomous Republic - are picking up momentum, one Karelian official admits privately. Closer ties are being forged with other former Soviet republics. Karelia signed a cooperation pact with the Transcaucasian nation of Georgia in late February.

Russia's economic crisis is making it more difficult for Karelian officials to wait for Moscow to sort out its troubles. While Karelian authorities do not consider the republic any worse off than most Russian regions, Karelia nonetheless is not self-sufficient in food production.

And there is concern about the future effects of hyperinflation and unemployment on the local economy, which is based largely on the timber industry.

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