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Russia Battles `Brushfires' in Bordering States

ALREADY mired in an internal struggle over adoption of a constitution, Russia is becoming more embroiled in disputes in neighboring states.

The distractions in other former Soviet republics threaten to further unsettle Russia's shaky domestic situation by inflaming nationalist passions. And increased nationalist pressure could deal a severe blow to President Boris Yeltsin's reform plans.

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The Central Asian state of Tajikistan, along with Estonia, Ukraine, and Georgia, are developing into foreign flash points for Russia.

On July 14, Moscow expressed outrage after an attack on a Russian outpost on the Tajik-Afghan border. At least 26 Russian soldiers and 100 civilians in a nearby village were killed, the Interfax news agency reported.

Islamic insurgents, who are battling the pro-Communist Tajik government, carried out the attack. Russian military units are in Tajikistan helping government forces fight the Muslim raiders, who used Afghanistan as a base.

Frequent border clashes have occurred since the pro-Communist forces drove the Islamic opposition out of Tajikistan early this year. But Tuesday's attack marked a significant escalation in hostilities.

Some Russian government and military officials say Afghan Army units helped plan the attack, participated, and should be punished.

"The United States found it possible to launch a missile attack.... Isn't it high time to show the world how much we value the lives of Russian soldiers," the military daily Red Star said yesterday, referring to the recent US missile attack on Iraq.

On Thursday, the Russian parliament approved plans to dispatch massive reinforcements to the combat zone, including armor and air units, giving the military the green light to open offensive operations. Meanwhile, Yeltsin vowed that he was "resolved and prepared to protect Russia's geo-political interests" in the region.

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Russia also is involved in an ongoing dispute with Estonia over the status of ethnic Russians living in the Baltic republic. A proposed Estonian "Law on Foreigners" provoked the row late last month. Under the law, noncitizens are given two years to apply for either citizenship or residency permits. Those who did not comply face expulsion.

As most of the 600,000 ethnic Russians living in Estonia do not hold Estonian citizenship, Russia denounced the proposed law as an attempt at "ethnic cleansing" and warned it could spark a Yugoslav-type conflict. Bowing to pressure from both Russia and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the Estonian parliament reviewed the proposed law and passed a slightly toned-down version this week.

But Russia remains critical of the legislation. Estonian parliament members say they took into account CSCE recommendations, but add the changes, which improve compensation for those denied residency permits, do little to alter the law's spirit.

Tension in Estonia could escalate, as two mainly Russian-populated cities - Sillamyae and Narva - plan referendums today on declaring themselves "autonomous entities within the republic." The Estonian government denounced the votes, but said it won't use force to stop them.

In addition, a Russian-Ukrainian dispute over possession of the Crimean Peninsula port city of Sevastopol continues to fester. The Russian parliament last week declared the Ukrainian city an integral part of Russia, sparking outrage in Ukraine. The Crimea was once part of Russia but was transferred to Ukraine in 1954. On July 14, Ukrainian officials announced they would appeal to the UN Security Council to pass judgment on the Russian legislature's action.

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