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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karelian Region: 'We Only Want to Be Left Alone'

PETROZAVODSK, Russia - For Lena Rogozinskaya, like many residents of this northern Russian republic, the most desirable result of Sunday's referendum would be that Moscow forget about Karelia altogether.

"We only want to be left alone", she said, licking, an ice cream cone in the city's American-owned Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop. "You have to understand - to us Karelians, Moscow is very far away".

Actually, Petrozavodsk, about 700 kilometers north of Moscow, is not much farther away from the Russian capital than St. Petersburg. But to Karelians, who spend much of their time looking west - especially to Finland, with whom they share a roughly 1, 000-kilometer border - Moscow often seems farther away than it really is.

When President Boris Yeltsin declared "special rule" last month, Karelia was the first republic to call the move illegal.

"We need only one thing from Moscow: stability", said Gennady Shamshin, deputy prime minister of the republic. "We are a rich republic. If politicians in Moscow can give the world an impression of stability, then we can do business".

The "business" is in natural resources: timber, paper, granite, marble, nickel, copper, iron ore, gold, fish and, increasingly, tourism.

"We are lucky", said Viktor Vasilyev, rector of Petrozavodsk State University. "We have problems, yes, but they are not as serious as in other places in Russia".

Karelia's "luck" is its location. It is impossible to understand this republic's independent mind-set without first knowing its geography.

Located on the Karelian peninsula, jutting north from the body of Russia to the northern port of Murmansk, the republic is a garden of virgin forests and some 60, 000 lakes, most still untouched by development.

Situated between the White Sea and Finland, Karelia has a chance to become a key transport point between the vast interior of Russia and Western Europe.

In February 1994, the republic expects to complete a commercial rail line - the first non-state railway in Russia - from the White Sea to the Finnish border. It also plans to add five new border crossings by the end of this year to the two that now exist. and it has approached the World Bank for financing to build a toll road from Petrozavodsk to Finland that would reduce the travel distance to Helsinki by 150 kilometers.

"Karelia will be for Russia, what Finland is for Western Europe - a door between east and west", said Deputy Prime Minister Shamshin.

All of these plans require foreign confidence in Russia, however, something Karelians hope will come from a resolution - one way or another - of the political crisis in Moscow. For this, they look to the referendum.

"The referendum is good for Karelia", said Vasilyev of Petrozavodsk State University. "This nonsense in Moscow must end, and it can only help to hear the opinions of the people".

Vasilyev said he was confident Yeltsin would win the referendum in Karelia. "I'm sure everyone here will vote for special elections for the people's deputies", he said.

Karelia's booming tourist trade, mostly with Finns, also depends on western confidence. The streets of Petrozavodsk are lined with commercial shops, privately run tourist agencies and signs in Finnish.

"Of course, as a businessman, I'm afraid of Yeltsin losing the referendum", said Oleg Sheremyetov, director of the private tourist agency, Vizit, which had gross sales last year of $200, 000. "Most likely, my business would be over".

Government officials say the republic intends to respect the Federative Treaty, which gives Karelia a great deal of latitude in selling its natural resources.

"Simply put, we give Moscow most of the timber, some metals and construction stones and", said Shamshin brushing his hands together, "the rest is ours. "That is acceptable".

In its history, Karelia has changed hands many times between the Russians, Swedes and Finns. The Karelian language is so closely related to Finnish, that Karelians adopted Finnish as their written language and Finnish inscriptions still adorn many buildings.

Presently, the population is 73 percent Russian and just 10 percent Karelian and nearly everyone now speaks Russian.

But in Karelia, history is of less concern than the future - and for the moment, that means voting in the referendum.

"People here are interested in the referendum", said Rogozinskaya, a Yeltsin supporter, in the Ben and Jerry's ice cream shop. "I will vote, of course. But most of us have more important things to worry about".