MOSCOW — THE longer Boris Yeltsin occupies the seat of power behind the red brick walls of the Kremlin, the more he finds himself looking over his shoulder and seeing the man he deposed, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Nowhere is this irony more apparent than in the battle Mr. Yeltsin finds himself waging these days to keep the giant Russian Federation intact.
Like Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to preserve the Soviet Union, Yeltsin's campaign to hold the patchwork of nationalities together within Russia seems to be in trouble and likely to fail.
The citizens of Tatarstan, an autonomous state of ethnic Tatars within Russia, embarrassed Yeltsin by spurning his last-minute appeal to vote "no" in an independence referendum March 21. Some observers worry Yeltsin might repeat Gorbachev's mistake of resisting the drive for national rights, setting the stage for a widening battle that includes other aspirants for statehood.
The undermining of Yeltsin's authority also comes at a time when his radical economic reform policies are under constant attack. Opponents of his policies are mounting an effort to oust his Cabinet at the meeting of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, the country's supreme legislature, set to begin April 6.
Yeltsin's first serious confrontation over this problem came in November when nationalists in the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingush, in the North Caucasus, took power and declared independence from Russia. The Russian Parliament refused to recognize the new government, and Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, an Army officer and Afghan war hero, vowed to send in troops. In the ensuing uproar, the Russian government backed down, leaving an uneasy truce in which the Chechen government issues state ments as if it were independent and the Russian government ignores them.
The challenge to the Yeltsin government from Tatarstan is more serious. It is the largest of 16 such minority national states within the Russian Federation.
This system has its roots in the Bolshevik revolution, which created these states in the name of self-determination, a structure repeated on a broader level in the 15 republics that made up the former Soviet Union. The autonomous republics within Russia represent a variety of Muslim nationalities, minorities of the North Caucasus, as well as Siberian peoples closely related to the Inuits (Eskimos) of North America. In addition there are five smaller autonomous regions and 10 autonomous areas.
Tatarstan is the designated homeland of the Tatars, the Muslim Turkic descendants of invaders who swept across Russia in the 13th century. The oil-rich republic, roughly equal in size to West Virginia, is located in the Volga region, on the territory of the former Kazan Khanate, which was conquered by Russia in the 16th century. Its 3.6 million population is, according to 1989 census figures, 48 percent Tatar and 43 percent Russian. In addition to pumping about 30 million tons of oil a year, it is a majo r industrial center whose economy is equal in size to the three former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union combined.
The movement for Tatar sovereignty began in 1988, but did not gain ground until local Communist leaders embraced the cause to keep more of the region's economic wealth. Similar movements exist in most Russian autonomous regions.
The Russian government has tried to counter demands for sovereignty by offering a new federation treaty giving greater rights to the regions and localities. A signing ceremony is set for March 31, but both Chechen-Ingush and Tatarstan refuse to sign.
The Russian government did everything it could to block the March 21 referendum. The Russian Constitutional Court and parliament declared the vote void, arguing that the formulation of the question, which proposes Tatarstan become a "subject of international law," did not permit a clear answer on the referendum.
Tatar republic leaders contended the referendum did not represent a move for separation. "We enter and break away from nothing," said Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev. "We just need a mechanism of joint survival."
"The main and the only goal of the forthcoming referendum is not to raise the republic's status or strengthen its sovereignty," retorted Yeltsin in an election eve appeal, "but to get the people's approval of Tatarstan's secession from Russia."
Such a course, he warned, would worsen prospects for economic reform and may trigger "a flare-up of ethnic strife in Russia's hinterland."
Such talk is all too reminiscent of Gorbachev's equally fruitless warning issued on the eve of a similar referendum in Ukraine last fall. Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin argued "not a single republic, not a single region, will be able to overcome economic adversities by acting alone." Nonetheless 61 percent of the electorate, somewhat less than that in major cities, were reported to have voted "yes" in the referendum.
While Yeltsin pledged to pursue a "civilized dialogue through negotiations," he also ominously referred to a "limit which should not be exceeded in any case or under any circumstances - the unity of Russia."
Despite this, Yeltsin shows some signs of being more ready than Gorbachev's government to recognize political inevitabilities. In a television interview March 22, Russian Deputy Premier Gennady Burbulis hinted Russia might cut a special deal with Tatarstan, in view of its size and importance.
Tatarstan President Shaimiyev opened a door in that direction in a press conference March 24 in which he called for a direct treaty with Russia rather than the federal treaty. Such a treaty would give Russia the right to ensure the country's defenses and security, he said.