AT the point where the Volga River fans out before flowing into the Caspian Sea, the cultures of Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus converge to create some turbulent cross-currents, particularly in these uncertain economic times.
Astrakhan, located at the top of the Volga delta, is nominally part of Russia, and it contains many typically Russian features, such as a kremlin, or fortress.
But the city's geographical position is Central Asian. Marshy steppes, or grasslands, surround the city, and desert lies only about 50 miles to the West. The climate also is Central Asian, and the arid summers make for a sleepy pace of life. All these factors combine to give the city a frontier feel, underscored by the mix of Slavic, Asian, and Caucasian faces on the dusty streets.
Back in the days of the Russian, then the Soviet empire, Moscow's firm rule helped maintain harmonious inter-ethnic relations. But the breakup of the Soviet Union has created nationality-related rifts.
As a result, many here are yearning for the return of an iron-fisted, centralized government.
The tension revolves mostly around the utilization of the Caspian Sea's resources, upon which the regional economy depends. The sea, actually the world's largest lake, is home to sturgeon that produce about 90 percent of the world's caviar supply.
In the Soviet era, Moscow established strict sturgeon quotas, explains Vladimir Ivanov, director of the Caspian Fisheries Institute. But catch limits have fallen by the wayside with the emergence of three new states on the Caspian Sea - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan - in addition to Russia and Iran.
``These new governments are searching for ways out of the economic crisis and many thought a good way would be to catch more sturgeon for caviar, and export it for hard currency,'' Mr. Ivanov says.
``We tried to warn them that if they all fished in this manner, there soon wouldn't be any sturgeon left in the sea,'' he adds. ``But instability hinders efforts to convince leaders of the need to regulate the catch.''
A drop in the Caspian's sturgeon stock already can be detected. Despite the intensive fishing, this year's sturgeon catch is estimated at about 6,000 tons, compared to 24,800 tons in 1980.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the sturgeon population cannot bounce back quickly. The average sturgeon has a life span of about 40 years and it takes up to 18 years before the fish starts producing caviar, Ivanov says.
Lately, the five Caspian states have begun to recognize the danger of sturgeon depletion. In late August, they signed a tentative agreement on establishing quotas. Yet working out details of the plan, particularly caviar export quotas, promises to be a protracted process. Too little, too late
For Volga delta fisherman the regulation attempt may be too little, too late. Anglers around Astrakhan have been among those hardest hit by the recent geopolitical changes. In the old days, a ban existed on catching sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, meaning only the Volga fisherman could harvest caviar.
But with the newly independent states now fishing in the sea, few sturgeon are making their way up the Volga delta, their traditional spawning ground. And Astrakhan fishermen feel their way of life is under assault.
``The Caucasians are plundering everything. This didn't happen earlier,'' says Anatoly Voronkov, director of the fishing department of the 20th Party Congress Collective Farm, about 30 miles south of Astrakhan. (Caucasian here refers to the people of the Caucasus, not the racial grouping.)
Growing inter-ethnic animosity in the Astrakhan region isn't limited to the economic realm. There's also cultural tension.
Before Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible subjugated Astrakhan in 1556, the area was dominated by Muslim Tatars. During the subsequent centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam led a sometimes uneasy coexistence. And now, after the relative stability of the Soviet era, long-suppressed feelings are again resurfacing.
In particular, divisions within Astrakhan's Islamic community are developing in a potentially explosive manner.
The region's established Islamic hierarchy is controlled by ethnic Tatars. But the Tatars' spiritual dominance is facing a challenge from Caucasian Muslims, who are immigrating to the region mainly from Dagestan, a Russian autonomous republic along the Caspian's Eastern shore.
The Caucasian Muslims are radical and intolerant of other religions, asserts Nazimbek Ilyazov, the imam of Astrakhan's Tatar-dominated central mosque. The Caucasian Muslims pray at their own mosque, he adds.
``They are starting to get the upper hand,'' Imam Ilyazov says about the spiritual struggle. ``The difficult economic situation helps them attract support.''
Social stability could be threatened, Ilyazov warns, if the Caucasians wrest control of the Islamic community from the Tatars, who tend to be more secular in outlook. That assessment appears to be substantiated by hostile statements of the local Caucasian Islamic leadership. Usman Abdul-Rakhmanov, a muezzin at Astrakhan's Caucasian-dominated mosque, recently said: ``Astrakhan is a traditional Islamic land that was occupied by Russians, just as they occupied Ukraine and Belarus.''
For their part, many ethnic Russians resent the Caucasian immigrants, linking them to a rise in organized criminal activity. The regional government recently introduced measures to restrict Caucasian immigration, but officials term it a ``losing battle.''
The government also is struggling to cope with two other issues linked to the Soviet Union's breakup: a territorial dispute with the neighboring Russian autonomous republic of Kalmykia and the relocation of the Russian Navy's Caspian flotilla.
Kalmykia claims pasture lands now controlled by the Astrakhan region. Officials here reject the claim, meaning the dispute could become another source of ethnic tension. In addition, the union's demise required the Caspian flotilla's headquarters to relocate from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Astrakhan.
The difficulty facing local officials is that they lack the money to accommodate the flotilla and its officers.
With so many problems, and no easy solutions, nostalgia here for the old regime is strong. Imam Ilyazov says he would welcome the restoration of some sort of centralized union among former Soviet republics. ``In family life, if the father is strong then there is order,'' he says. ``The state is just a big family.''
Mr. Voronkov, the Volga delta fisherman, echoes such sentiment, saying, ``We need a strong man to reunite the country and bring order to it.... As it is, a great state has been ruined.'' `I won't defend Yeltsin'
Even many of those who have benefited the most here under Russia's post-Soviet economic reforms now have little good to say about the President Boris Yeltsin's administration. Local entrepreneurs questioned on Astrakhan's streets said they no longer supported the president.
``I won't go to the barricades to defend Yeltsin,'' says Nina Solokhina, a bookseller. ``We very much need a strong hand now, but unfortunately Yeltsin doesn't have what it takes. He should be much tougher with his opponents.''
Alexander Zhilkin, first deputy head of the Astrakhan Regional Administration says Mr. Yeltsin must dispel the widespread notion that he is concerned only with Moscow's political intrigues and does not care about the people's economic problems.
If Yeltsin fails to respond to discontent in Astrakhan and other regions, Zhilkin says, it could prompt an attempt to grab power by the Russian nationalists intent on reviving at least some aspects of the old empire.
The danger for Russia, he adds, is that such an attempt would stand little chance of success.
``There's no decisiveness now ... and this can create a dangerous situation,'' Zhilkin says. ``Yeltsin thinks the most important thing is to dissolve parliament. But we'll all end up losing if this goes on.''