MOSCOW — RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has proposed a new federal system for this vast country that would demolish much of the structure inherited from the Soviet era.
At a meeting of regional leaders on Wednesday, Mr. Yeltsin promoted a draft for a new constitution that would remove the sovereignty of some 21 ethnic states that are part of the Russian Federation. Under the new structure, the ethnic republics would be equal in status to the 67 other regions of the federation.
The change is a direct challenge to the ethnic republics, many of which demand total economic and political autonomy, including the right to carry out direct foreign relations. The oil-rich Volga state of Tatarstan, mostly inhabited by Muslim Tatars, has been active in promoting its claim to authority, refusing even to sign the Federation Treaty agreed upon last year. The northern Caucasus state of Chechenya has virtually seceded from Russia, refusing all links with Moscow.
``The rights of the republics are being gradually washed away,'' complained Viktor Stepanov, leader of the northern republic of Karelia and a spokesman for the republican cause. Republican leaders refused to agree to the changes, prompting a convening of a special commission to try to reach a compromise.
Yeltsin warned that if they did not reach an agreement, he reserved the right to make the final decision on his own. The Russian leader plans to publish the proposed draft constitution on Nov. 10, with a referendum on its key principles to take place simultaneously with elections to a new Russian parliament on Dec. 11-12.
``Now the situation is very unclear,'' says presidential adviser Leonid Smirnyagin. ``Most [republican] leaders are still scared after the October events,'' he adds referring to the armed clash in which the anti-Yeltsin parliament was crushed. ``But some start raising their heads.''
Yeltsin's new draft significantly shears the republics of the powers they had won in the draft drawn up earlier this summer. That version allowed the republics the status of ``sovereign states,'' distinctly elevating them from the largely Russian-populated regions, which are purely territorial units.
The regions have been agitating strongly against this, demanding that they have equal rights of autonomy. Many have sought to press their cause by unilaterally converting themselves into ``republics,'' as the Sverdlovsk region, home of Yeltsin, did on Sunday.
The new formula yields largely to the regions. It removes the concept of ``sovereignty,'' giving regions equal legal status.
Yeltsin, in his speech to the republican and regional leaders, argued that the provision of sovereignty to any unit would lead to the breakup of Russia as a unitary state and its transformation into a confederation. ``That is why sovereignty covers the whole of Russia,'' Yeltsin explained. ``I am a supporter of the right of peoples for self-determination but with one clause - excluding the right to secede from Russia.''
Mr. Smirnyagin, who attended the meeting, reports that Mr. Stepanov took the floor after Yeltsin to ask ``sharp questions,'' referring to the guarantee of the right of secession under the Helsinki Agreement of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was followed by Tatarstan leader Mintimer Shaimiyev who used ``polite and diplomatic language'' to warn that if sovereignty was taken away, they might refuse to hold a vote on the new constitution.
The republics are an inheritance from the Bolshevik revolution, which created them after promises to grant the right of self-determination to the many minorities within the Russian Empire. In practice, however, this right was empty and the Soviet state became even more centralized than its Czarist predecessor.
The giant Russian Federation was one of 15 Soviet republics, but the breakup of the Soviet Union and the political turmoil within Russia have provided an opportunity for both republics and regions within Russia to assert their desire for decentralization of power. Many Russian politicians and analysts have warned this could lead to the breakup of Russia itself.
The new draft is a victory for federalism, Smirnyagin says. It represents a defeat for ``unitarists'' within the government who wished to reinforce central rule by redividing the country into guberniyas, the territorial divisions that existed during the Czarist era. Instead, the regions are being effectively elevated to the status of the republics, each with their own constitutions, similar in many ways to states in the United States.