Perestroika in the provinces. Reform efforts are still just political slogans on the bleak steppes of remote Soviet republic

Perestroika has so far passed Tuva by. The little republic is on the far fringes of the empire: Mongolia is 150 miles away, Moscow more than 2,000. But despite all Mikhail Gorbachev's calls for local people to assume the initiative, people here say that nothing will change until reform in Moscow develops momentum.

``The periphery in this country changes only when the Kremlin forces it to do so,'' one resident commented.

``I'll show you perestroika in Tuva,'' said a student from the teachers' training college. He pointed across the street to a large poster calling for support for Mr. Gorbachev's reforms. All the official components of reform - perestroika (restructuring), democratization, openness - were listed on a dramatic red background. ``Perestroika starts and ends with this poster,'' the young man said.

But Grigory Khanin, who colleagues say only half jokingly is in exile here, feels that some faint signs of change are seeping into life here. He illustrates his point with an example.

Mr. Khanin and his colleagues in the local branch of the Academy of Sciences recently completed work on an outline plan for the development of Tuva. It proposed a radically new approach to the republic's development, and was not very complimentary about the policies carried out over the past 15 years.

The reaction from the republic's leadership was deeply hostile: ``They called us all sort of nasty names,'' Khanin says.

``But three years ago they would have eaten us. In the very best of circumstances we'd have been shipped back to Leningrad,'' Khanin says. So in one way at least new thinking has reached Tuva: The local leaders realize that ``they can't do everything they would like to.''

What is now the Tuva Autonomous Republic was one of Genghis Khan's first conquests. Outside the city, on the bleak frozen steppe, you can see youngsters on horseback watching over their sheep. Herders still live part of the year in yurts (animal-skin tents). And a sign in Kyzyl's main market informs customers lining up to buy from the meager supply of vegetables that ``shepherds with appropriate documentation will be served first.''

Under the mountains near the border live Old Believers - descendants of the schismatics who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. They remain aloof from the Communist Party and refuse to have anything to do with collective farms.

The republic's capital, Kyzyl, stretches a couple of blocks deep along the highway. Its population is 73,000, but it seems smaller. ``You should have come in summer,'' says my official greeter, Tan. The winter is cold and long, he says. It is approaching zero degrees Fahrenheit in the morning during my stay there. Tan shrugs - that is mild.

Throughout winter people have to contend with the soot from the coal-fired power station, which produces a thick, acrid smog. Winter lasts through the end of March. April is muddy. May brings the wind: You go outside, and your ears and nose are filled with dust, Tan says. July and August are beautiful, and September is nice. But the trouble with September, Tan says, is that you know that winter is on the way again.

A walk around the town's enormous main square illustrates a dramatically lopsided approach to development. On one side, stretching along the length of the block, sits a big, modern building faced with white marble, obviously based on some of Moscow's government offices. This is the headquarters of the republic's Council of Ministers and Supreme Soviet. Diagonal to it is the Communist Party headquarters, equally imposing and beautifully maintained, but somewhat older.

The focal point of the square is a modern white stone theater - usually half empty, Tan says, because there's not much demand for theater here. Five thousand families are on Kyzyl's waiting list for housing.

Shoved away in the corner of the square is a small one-story building that looks like a secondhand bookstore in a Vermont town. It's the republic's main library. Books are dispensed from a counter staffed by one librarian. The whole building could easily fit into the lobby of either the government or party headquarters.

The shops are equally ill-favored. Meat, sausage, and sugar are rationed. Butter, toothpaste, and cookies were not to be found in the shops that this reporter visited.

The republic has been the bailiwick of Grigory Shirshin, an ethnic Tuvin who succeeded longtime leader Toka in 1973. He has attracted the notice of the central media only a couple of times since Gorbachev came to power. Most notice has been unflattering, centering on his failure to support glasnost (openness), clamp down on crime, or seriously pursue reform.

Mr. Shirshin will probably be dropped when the Communist Party here holds its elections at the end of the year. Perhaps things will start to change then, one Tuvin official said with an edge of wistfulness to his voice. Nikolai Azhishchev, who heads the Academy of Science's outpost here, has more modest expectations.

You will be able to say that perestroika has begun, he predicts, when someone officially accepts his development plan.

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