Tatars split over Moscow ties: Ethnic passions, with demands for total independence, threaten Boris Yeltsin's unity plans, Helen Womack reports from Kazan

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RIF JAMILOV and Nazim Safin are both Tatars, living in the Volga River city of Kazan, before the 1917 revolution a wealthy merchant centre, and now after decades of Communism a dreary backwater barely distinguishable from countless other Russian provincial towns.

For Mr Safin, a lawyer and deputy chairman of the Tatar nationalist organisation VTOTS, hope for recovery lies in full independence from the giant Russian Federation. By contrast Mr Jamilov, a businessman making so much money that he can afford to holiday in the Canary Islands, has little patience with the rhetoric of the 'anti-colonialists' and believes the Tatars will only prosper again through hard work and close ties with Russia.

Trying to steer a middle course between these two extremes is President Mintimer Shaimiyev, who wants an 'association' between the already self-declared 'sovereign' republic of Tatarstan and Moscow. The Tatar delegation, however, walked out of Boris Yeltsin's Constitutional Assembly when it refused to write a line about the republic's special status into Russia's new basic law. 'We said we were not slamming the door behind us but it was useless to go on sitting there when we were being ignored,' said Zilya Valeyeva, deputy chairman of the Tatarstan parliament. If Russia, with its 21 ethnic republics like Tatarstan and its 68 other regional autonomous areas and big cities, unravels like the Soviet Union before it, the process could well begin here in Kazan.

The most radical Tatar nationalists would welcome this ultimate break-up of empire following the first collapse in 1991 when Moscow lost control of the 15 former Soviet republics. Although Tatarstan is now allowed to keep some of the revenue from its rich oil industry, the nationalists say Moscow still milks the republic greedily. And although the Muslim Tatars are now being allowed to restore their mosques, the nationalists complain that they are still subject to Orthodox Christian cultural domination. For example, Christmas is a national holiday in the whole of Russia even though vast areas to the east of Moscow are populated by Muslims, not to mention Buddhists.

The leaders of VTOTS, split into two factions since their chairman, Zinnur Agliullin, was arrested after hand grenades were found in his flat, insist they will never resort to terrorism. 'Every war ends in peace so it is not worth starting the war in the first place,' said Mr Safin from the faction that believes Mr Agliullin was framed, perhaps by Russian secret police; the other faction has disowned him.

More moderate Tatars and Russians, the latter making up 50 per cent of the population of Kazan, believe talk of full independence as opposed to economic autonomy is lunacy. Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatars as far back as the 16th century and since then the two communities have lived peacefully together, inter-marrying to the point where few 'pure' Tatars or Russians are left. Why risk this ethnic harmony, they ask.

The economic arguments against cutting links with Russia are equally strong, they say. 'I have lost 10m roubles ( pounds 6,700) because of the political games being played in Ukraine,' said Mr Jamilov, referring to the customs controls introduced when Ukraine became independent. 'I am a Tatar but not a separatist. Business does not like borders.' Mr Jamilov, once a Soviet army officer, had a turnover of 2bn roubles last year in a business which began by supplying computers and has branched into banking, insurance and tourism.

Mr Jamilov, who says he has made his fortune legally and without having to pay off the mafia, takes lunch every day in his own restaurant, where the tables groan with caviar, salads, fruits and Tatar specialities. Few other people live so well in Tatarstan, where old Communists-turned-nationalists are in power and reform lags far behind other parts of Russia such as St Petersburg and Moscow.

President Shaimiyev, a former regional Communist Party boss who did nothing to support the democrats during the 1991 hardline coup attempt, can perhaps be compared to Ukraine's President, Leonid Kravchuk, who bangs the nationalist drum while delaying transition to the free market. Kazan seems frozen in time with its streets still named after Lenin, Marx and the KGB founder Dzerzhinsky, its red-marble Lenin museum which the locals call the 'crematorium' and the preserved classroom in the university where Lenin was a student, the only place in the former Soviet Union where you can see pictures of Lenin with hair before he went bald.

Privatisation has hardly begun and prices are somewhat lower than in Moscow but then so are wages. Ordinary people face an exhausting daily struggle merely to survive. As elsewhere in Russia, life is perhaps hardest for members of the intelligentsia whose scientific and cultural institutions have lost state subsidies and whose once-decent salaries have been eroded to nearly nothing by inflation. They do manual work or hold down as many as three separate jobs just to eat.

'There is absolutely no joy in our lives,' said Boris, a local writer. 'The only thing we can be grateful for in Tatarstan is that we can still walk out and hear the birds sing, and civil war has not started here yet. I suppose that is something.'

(Map omitted)