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Ethnic Discontent in Russia Growing after Communist Era

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times
KAZAN, Russia

On a tiny island at the confluence of the swollen Volga and Kama rivers stands a white pavilion built a century ago in tribute to Ivan the Terrible's 1552 conquest of independent Tataria.

"When I was little, I used to dream of blowing up that monument, which seemed to me to glorify the Russian penchant to repress us," recalls Tatar nationalist leader Marat A. Mulyukov.

"But now I think it should remain there," he says with defiance, "as a reminder of the futility of efforts to deprive Tatars of their freedom."

Mulyukov's words resound with a bluster and rhetoric common in post-Communist Russia's ethnic caldron, where more than 100 nationalities make up a population of 148 million - a human patchwork that spreads across 11 time zones and twice the territory of the United States.

Nationalist strivings for self-rule, economic incentives for locally managed development and ecologists' demands for a freer hand to clean up the former Soviet Union's poisoned environment are piling pressures on the evolving post-Communist leadership and increasingly calling into question whether the center will hold. A fracturing Russia would only contribute to the instability afflicting Eurasia and leave a weakened and resentful rump of predominantly Russian territory ruled by Moscow.

Mulyukov's insistence that the Republic of Tatarstan is again free of Russia, by virtue of its 4-year-old proclamation of independence, is one of many autonomy claims by Russia's minorities. And although the loudest boasts of separatism usually come from the nationalist fringes, they are often validated by official expressions of support.

The only flags flying from government buildings in this Tatar capital are the red-and-green colors of ancient Tataria. License plates on cars, trucks and buses do not conform to ones elsewhere in Russia. Tatarstan trade offices in Turkey, Australia and other countries are referred to as "embassies." And in July, the local government decided to withhold federal tax payments of $1 billion to compensate Tatarstan industries for debts owed by Moscow.

Outnumbered in Tatarstan, Chechnya and the roiling Caucasus regions, Russians are battling against the drift of power from the center to local leadership that they fear could repress them.

Even some in the local majority community who have remained aloof from the nationalist drumbeating are worried by the trend toward weakening of the federal center.

"Independence is a political myth. We are too interconnected," says Rashit R. Akhmetov, head of Tatarstan's pro-reform Democratic Party of Russia. "I'm not worried about a breakup of Russia, because no single entity could survive on its own."