The Maritime Territory, one of Russia's biggest provinces and the home of its Pacific Fleet, unilaterally upgraded its status to that of a republic Thursday following a similar move by the mighty Sverdlovsk region.
The vote by the local legislature in Vladivostok deepens an already acute political crisis, which could scuttle President Boris Yeltsin's plans to unite all Russia's regions behind his proposal for a new constitutional order.The Maritime Territory's regional council in the port city of Vladivostok, 5,780 miles east of Moscow, passed a declaration saying the region "has the constitutional-legal status of a republic in the Russian federation."
Deputies also voted to hold a regional referendum on the issue in the territory, which has 2.2 million people and is half the size of Japan.
The Interfax news agency reported that the local council sent a message to the Russian Parliament and president saying the move was prompted by Moscow's failure to respond to the region's repeated appeals to change its status.
The vote in Vladivostok came a week after Yeltsin's home territory, the Sverdlovsk region, declared itself the Urals Republic, a move which was then copied by the Vologda region north of Moscow.
Yeltsin responded by asking Vologda and Sverdlovsk to reconsider, saying their decisions were "untimely" and promising to address the issue of their status at the next meeting of his constitutional assembly.
Yeltsin's assembly last month issued proposals which would preserve the Russian federation's two-tier system, distinguishing between the 21 ethnic republics, which enjoy a wide degree of autonomy, and the 60-odd regions.
The homelands of its many ethnic minorities, Russia's republics are endowed with almost all the attributes of statehood, though they make up less than 20 percent of Russia's population.
But the more populous regions have little autonomy and few economic rights, despite the fact that they are the pillars of Russia's industrial might and often subsidize the smaller, and poorer, republics.
Moscow News reported this week that the republics of Sakha-Yakutia, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where separatist sentiments run high, are effectively subsidized by the regions of Central Russia and Siberia.
The newspaper published a table showing that Sakha has almost 60,000 rubles, about $60, to spend per head of population, while Novosibirsk region has only about 5,000, about $5.
Sverdlovsk regional leaders stressed last week they had no plans to secede from Russia, and did not want their own flag or other symbols of statehood, but merely insisted on broader economic rights.