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Russia: Republic Of Kalmykia Has No Desire To Secede

Moscow, 3 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The recent secessionist threat reportedly posed by the president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia has subsided almost as abruptly as it emerged.

Last month, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov sparked a furious response from Moscow when he said his southern republic could loosen ties with the center and seek a downgrading of its status to an associate membership in the federation.

The comment came in a television interview two weeks ago. But this weekend, Ilyumzhinov told RFE/RL that he had been misunderstood and that he never suggested his republic might secede.

"There was no secessionist call nor statement of any kind. In the interview with the ORT journalist I explained the situation which had developed in the republic in connection with the fact that Kalmykia has not received any money from Moscow since April."

Ilyumzhinov says that he isn't concerned by the anger voiced in Moscow, saying that his comments had drawn attention to Moscow's lack of financial support to the republic over the past few months. In fact, Ilyumzhinov met with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the aftermath of the row and discussed Kalmykia's financial situation.

Ilyumzhinov told RFE/RL that "the point is not to find ways to secede from the Russian Federation." He said that instead, his republic and Moscow "have to find a way out from the financial dead end in which (they) find ourselves, while remaining within Russia."

According to a Russian political analyst wishing to remain anonymous, regional authorities have in the past few years been increasingly free to run the territories as they saw fit. Some, the analyst said, have tried to use the opportunity to pursue reform, but the majority have taken advantage of the situation to bolster their own control, often disregarding notions such as accountability to their own populations and Moscow authorities alike.

The weekly "Expert," in an article published this week, writes that secessionist threats, as well as threats to stop the transfer of regional tax revenues to the federal budget, are "a sign of (regional leaders') populism and political irresponsibility."

The analyst said financial and industrial lobbyists from the regions seem to be sending a signal to the Moscow authorities that they are prepared to change their political allegiances if bailout packages are curtailed or too much attention is paid to dubious financial practices.

The deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Oleg Sysuev, described the Kalmykian president's threat as "a smoke screen to divert attention from efforts to sort out financial dealings by the republican leadership."

Ilyumzhinov was elected in 1993, after promising he would turn the republic into a "second Kuwait." He declared an offshore zone in the republic and companies that register there -- some 5,000 to date, according to "Expert" -- are freed from most Russian taxes. But they make contributions to an off-budget "Fund for Presidential Programmes." According to Russian media reports, Ilyumzhinov uses this money, among other things, to pay for his pet projects.

Russian Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov has reportedly sent a letter to parliament listing Kalmykia's financial irregularities. Life for many of the residents of Kalmykia remains hard. Western correspondents recently returned from the republic say many people there have been unpaid for years and the average income is reportedly less than 15 dollars per month.

After meeting with Primakov last week, Ilyumzhinov claimed the prime minister had agreed that Kalmykia's economic troubles need to be addressed.

Ilyumzhinov, who is reputed to have a personal wealth in the millions of dollars, repeated to RFE/RL that he intends to be a candidate in Russia's next presidential campaign. But he also added that he is close to Russia's most powerful regional leader, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, himself a likely presidential candidate.