Soviet high school students who didn't know the number of republics in the Soviet Union would have flunked their geography exams a year ago. Today, no one is sure of the answer.

Lithuania is out, or soon to be. Chuvashia, however, is in. Latvia, Estonia, Karelia and Georgia are saying goodbye as fast as they prudently can. Tatarstan, Komi, Mari, Dniester and Gagauz are ready to take their places."Sometimes, it's hard to know where you live anymore," said Pyotr Gorbanenko, a legislator in Moldavia, which is simultaneously seeking independence from the Soviet Union and trying to put down two internal separatist movements.

It used to be simple. In 1988, the Soviet Union had 15 republics, each with its own legislature. Scattered among them were 20 smaller "autonomous republics," or homelands for various ethnic groups.

The country has been fragmenting since President Mikhail S. Gorbachev loosened Moscow's grip on power and allowed aggrieved minorities to speak out.

That hampers Gorbachev's plans for nationwide economic reform and getting an agreement among the republics to replace the 1924 treaty of union. It also has led to violence, most recently in Moldavia.

Several regions are trying to secede, following the lead of Lithuania, which declared independence in March.

In addition to the Baltic republics, there are strong independence movmements in Karelia, a district of about 140,000 people north of Leningrad that wants to join neighboring Finland; the western Ukraine, where many people want unification with Poland, and the southern republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Regions that don't want to leave the Soviet Union also are pushing for sovereignty. Several regions are actually trying to become Soviet republics.

Some ethnic minorities, such as Moslem Abkhazians in Georgia, want to break away from larger groups they accuse of discrimination.

Others, such as the Tatar, Chuvash, Komi, Mari and Chukchi peoples in the Russian republic, seek to raise their legal status - from district to autonomous republic, or from autonomous to full-fledged republic. Their goals include political power, cultural preservation and control of natural resources.

Ethnic and political friction has led repeatedly to violence in the past two years. In Moldavia last week, the regional government sent troops to clear roadblocks set up by separatists who had declared a new republic east of the Dniester River. At least four people were killed.

The unrest stemmed from a combination of historical injustices, ethnic grievances and unfounded rumors, a typical mix that shows how explosive self-determination can be in a nation whose borders have changed often in the 20th century.

Moldavia, which had been a Soviet republic since 1924, more than doubled in size at the start of World War II, when Stalin annexed neighboring Bessarabia from Romania under a secret protocol of his non-aggression treaty with Hitler.


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Panels will determine division of resources

Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin have set up two panels to decide how to divide oil, gold and other natural resources between the central government and the Russian Federation, Yeltsin said Monday.

Yeltsin, briefing deputies on his two-hour meeting with Gorbachev on Sunday, said he assured the Soviet president that he is not trying to break up the Soviet Union through his aggressive leadership of the dominant republic.

"We are for a strong union and a (new) union treaty," Yeltsin told a Russian Parliament commission writing a new constitution for the federation.

Yeltsin said that he and Gorbachev had agreed to set up two working groups, with one panel to address the division of property between the central and Russian government and the other to deal with the distribution of powers.

The meeting was the latest twist in the topsy-turvy relationship between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, which has swung between extremes of bitter rivalry and amiable partnership.

The two leaders set up a joint panel in August to develop a plan to move the country to a market economy based on Yeltsin's 500-day program, but Gorbachev later opted for a more moderate approach, prompting accusations of betrayal from Yeltsin.

Yeltsin said the meeting Sunday featured "low-key" discussion.

The meeting marked the second time in a week that Gorbachev and Yeltsin sought to present a united front. The two men led a column of people Wednesday in a march across Red Square on Revolution Day.

Gorbachev wants the new "union treaty" to replace the 1922 agreement that formally created the Soviet Union, binding the republics together as the renamed "Union of Sovereign Socialist Republics."

The secession-bent Baltic republics, which declared independence earlier this year, have said they want no part of a new pact tying them to Moscow and the rest of the Soviet Union.