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Analysis From Washington - Russia's New Chinese Problem

Washington, 28 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Massive and often illegal Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East threatens Russia's national security, the Russian interior ministry told a press briefing last Friday.

This sobering announcement came at the end of a week during which Russian President Boris Yeltsin and visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin declared that their two countries had formed a strategic partnership.

And it came only one day after Russia, three Central Asian states, and China signed an accord reducing the number of military forces along their shared border.

According to Itar-Tass, Russian interior ministry officials said that the number of Chinese immigrants in the Russian Far East had increased from around 300,000 in early 1994 to almost two million now.

More than two-thirds of these were there illegally, the ministry said, and these Chinese "illegals" now account for more than half of all economic crimes in the region.

Chinese mobs, the interior ministry said, often fight among themselves, traffic in drugs and false documents, and are confident enough of their powers that the "Chinese invaders" engage in armed clashes with Russian border guards.

Russian officials -- especially in the military and the security services -- have long complained about the growing Chinese presence in the region.

Some of these officials have done so out of a genuine concern about crime. Crime in the region has increased dramatically in recent years, often frightening away legitimate businessmen.

And as in so many areas, many in the local population have given crime an "ethnic" face and local officials have played on that. Others have made such comments to remind Russian regional officials there that they continue to need Moscow's protection.

And still other Moscow officials appear to have made such comments as part of an effort to generate Russian national feelings against a traditional and much-feared foreign group.

But the timing of this announcement points to three important things about Russian attitudes toward China and the Chinese.

First, the announcement suggests that there are serious disagreements within the Russian government over how to deal with China. While some in Moscow may want to pursue closer ties, others clearly do not.

And it highlights the inability of Yeltsin and other top Russian officials to keep such disagreements private, even on a high-level and presumably sensitive issue of Sino-Russian relations.

Second, it suggests that Russian officials may want to send a signal to China that they will not move quickly to fulfill the latest border accord unless China tightens things up on its side.

Various media reports suggested last week that the Russian government did not think it would have to draw down its forces there very much from their current levels, a possible indication that Moscow does not want to do very much in this regard.

And third, it suggests that many in the Russian government want to send a strong signal to China that the recent warm words exchanged between Yeltsin and Jiang do not mean that China can now count on Moscow to look the other way when its direct interests are threatened.

The explanation for Friday's briefing probably arises from a combination of these calculations rather than the simple working out of any one of them.

And that in turn suggests that Sino-Russian relations will not move onto a smooth plateau without difficulties that some commentators in both Moscow and Beijing had promised at the time of the Yeltsin-Jiang summit.