WHILE officials in Karelia worry about the possible breakup of Russia, a few political activists here are agitating for the autonomous republic to unify with neighboring Finland.
Karelia owes its autonomous status to being home to ethnic minorities - Karelians, Finns, and Vepsy - that share close cultural and linguistic links with Finns across the border.
"Karelia's position next to Finland means that it's only natural that many people - the Russian population included - would look for close political relations with Finland," said Anatoly Grigoriev, leader of the Karelian Movement, which advocates greater minority rights and unification.
Mr. Grigoriev, an ethnic Karelian, envisages a Finnish-Karelian confederation and speaks of it as if it's inevitable. But he appears to enjoy little popular support. For one thing, Karelians, Finns, and Vepsy make up only about 15 percent of the 850,000 population, with the rest being mainly Russian.
The Karelian political leadership, likewise, is firmly opposed to political integration, although it would like to broaden economic cooperation with Finland. "It's an outrageous idea," Karelian Minister for External Relations Valery Shlyamin says of unification, adding that the region has centuries-old ties to Russia.
The Finnish government in Helsinki has expressed little interest in political union. The nation's economy, already devastated by the collapse of a major trading partner, the former Soviet Union, would be further burdened if leaders in Helsinki assumed responsibility for ethnic cousins in Karelia.
Grigoriev, however, insists popular support for his movement is greater than acknowledged and is growing due to dissatisfaction with Russia's political and economic crisis. "There are more people who think as I do, but they are afraid to say so openly," he says. "They're still afraid of Moscow."
The cause possibly could get a boost from Finland. A significant portion of the Finnish population favors the recovery of Karelian territory lost to the Soviet Union during World War II. Helsinki officially does not dispute the Karelian-Finnish border, but does not dismiss the possibility of a readjustment by mutual agreement.
Regardless of whether a Karelian-Finnish confederation becomes a reality, it appears officials here will have to cope with rising national awareness among the ethnic minorities.
External Affairs Minister Shlyamin says Karelia is doing everything it can to foster a cultural revival. More schools, he notes, are starting to teach the Karelian and Finn languages.