Estonia's Russians threaten breakaway

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THE PROSPECT of serious inter- ethnic conflict in Estonia looked closer yesterday after ethnic Russian leaders in the eastern city of Narva announced plans to hold a referendum on whether to declare autonomy.

Government representatives condemned the move, saying it was unconstitutional. 'This is a political game which is dangerous,' said Liia Hanni, the acting Prime Minister. However, he ruled out the use of force to prevent the referendum, which is scheduled to be held on 16-17 July.

Members of Narva's city council, which voted by an overwhelming majority for the referendum, said that they had been stirred into action by the government's decision last week to pass a new law on citizenship and residency under which some 500,000 ethnic Russians - almost a third of the total population - would be classified as foreigners, with some, ultimately, facing possible expulsion.

Resentment over the law, which was subsequently suspended by President Lennart Meri, was particularly pronounced in Narva, an industrial city bordering on Russia, with a population of 80,000, almost 90 per cent of whom are ethnic Russians. 'If we had not called for the referendum, there would have been riots and roadblocks around here,' said Vladimir Tshuikin, the chairman of Narva council.

Although the council says it is only pushing for 'autonomy within Estonia' rather than a complete break, its members want the district to be able to conduct its own foreign policy, to raise its own taxes and to be exempt from laws stipulating the use of the Estonian language at work.

For many in Tallinn, autonomy of any kind for Narva would simply be the thin edge of the wedge under which the region would ultimately unite with Russia. Some MPs yesterday accused Moscow of direct involvement in the referendum call. Certainly Moscow has made no secret of its displeasure over the proposed new citizenship law.

MOSCOW (Reuter) - Russia has restored normal gas supplies four days after halting deliveries, the Estonian news agency said yesterday. The move, following negotiations on settling Estonia's payment arrears, could take some of the heat out of the citizenship dispute.