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Russia Worried Over Tatarstan Referendum on Independence

March 19, 1992 GMT

KAZAN, Russia (AP) _ For Fauziya Bairamova, the battle that gave Kazan to the Russians 440 years ago has never ended.

″We are still at war with them,″ said Bairamova, a Tatar nationalist leader who had to be persuaded to speak Russian.

On Saturday, Tatarstan votes on whether the oil-rich region should be independent of Russia, posing a serious threat to the unity of the largest of the former Soviet republics.

Russian television calls it ″a crucial moment in the history of the Russian Federation.″

Voters will be asked: ″Do you agree that the republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state, a subject of international law, building its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics (states) on an equal basis?″

Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled last week the referendum’s wording was unconstitutional, saying it implied altering the Russian Federation’s state structure. But that decision is expected to have little effect on the vote.

This morning, President Boris N. Yeltsin appealed to the parliament of Tatarstan to cancel the referendum, news agencies reported.

″I believe it is not too late yet for the parliament of Tatarstan to return to the issue and adopt a decision which would correspond to the resolution of the Constitutional Court of Russia,″ Yeltsin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The Russian legislature was expected to debate the referendum soon.

Russia fears losing its key Volga River region of 3.7 million people and also worries the vote will trigger similar attempts among other autonomous areas and cause the country to disintegrate like the Soviet Union.

Tatar leaders say the referendum does not focus on independence but on strengthening the republic’s 1990 sovereignty declaration.

″The Russian parliament does not recognize Tatarstan’s declaration on state sovereignty, hence our decision to hold a referendum to show everybody that sovereignty is the people’s choice,″ Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev told the Interfax news agency.

″We are not talking about secession from the Russian Federation but about establishing bilateral relations on a new basis and raising Tatarstan’s status,″ Shaimiyev said.

For example, he said, Tatarstan did not need its own army or currency.

Tatar separatists believe Moscow has been robbing them ever since Kazan - the capital of the mighty Tatar Khanate - fell to Russia in 1552.

Tatarstan accounted for a third of Soviet oil production in the 1960s. Under an agreement with the Russian government, Tatarstan will control half its oil this year and all of it in 1993.

Although Tatarstan imports sugar, grain and fruit, it can produce enough meat, milk and vegetables to feed itself. Its industrial might includes chemical, optics and truck factories, as well as defense plants that turn out helicopters and strategic bombers.

About one-half, or 1.8 million of Tatarstan’s population, is ethnic Tatar. The rest is Russian and other minorities, and the Russian legislature says the referendum may lead to ethnic strife.

Islam also is on the rise among Tatars, and some Russians fear a spread of Islamic fundamentalism, pointing to Muslim support for the separatists.

Yuri Gvozdetsky, a member of a Slavic unity organization, said an independent Tatarstan would become a ″mono-national Islamic state.″

Muslim clergyman Achmedgarif Kharisov dismissed such concerns.

″We have always lived normally with Russians, we are like brothers. We cannot be hostile to each other,″ Kharisov said. ″Some are spreading hatred - they are former communists who now disguise themselves as democrats.″

Tatar secessionists insist there is nothing to fear.

″Nobody is going to expel them. ... They are ‘our’ Russians, we have lived together for several hundred years,″ said Marat Mulyukov, the president of All-Tatar Public Center, a mainstream separatist group.

Kazan’s streets are lined with classic houses that still retain the flavor of 19th century Russia. Its history includes such names as writer Leo Tolstoy. Vladimir Lenin started his revolutionary career at Kazan University.

But some Russians in Kazan are concerned about the referendum, and lawmaker Ivan Grachev expects the worst.

″Relations with Russia will become tense,″ he said. ″The economic situation will become worse. The legal system will come under full control of nationalist forces.″

If the referendum fails, there is still the Milli-Maijlis, the Tatar national parliament elected last month by Tatar separatist groups.

″If the republic will not be able to change its form, Tatar people have the right for self-determination within Tatarstan,″ said Milli-Maijlis chairman Talgat Abdullin. ″And if some state tries to block us by force, international law allows Tatars to lead a liberation struggle.″