IN a drab government office, 10 members of St. Petersburg's city council, or "soviet," are hunched over a document they hope will help catapult this elegant but tired city to a brighter future.Known simply as the "status law," it is designed to give the former Russian capital a measure of autonomy needed to create a prosperous free-market economy. But a more mundane section of the law, now in draft form, provokes the liveliest discussion: a proposed system of checks and balances designed to ease growing tensions between the council and St. Petersburg's popular new mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Under normal circumstances this would be a matter of purely local interest. In fact, St. Petersburg has become a case study in the competition for political power that is taking place at all levels of government following the simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. "In the past we had only one power - the party - and the council and the mayor were window dressing," says Russian writer Daniil Granin. "Now the executive and legislature are searching for their own places. The most difficult problem is how to divide the power they have now inherited." "This is not just a St. Petersburg problem," adds Elena Zelinskaya, director of the Northwest Information Agency, a Russian news service. "It's a problem in all the countries that were once under totalitarian rule." At one level the problem is a contest over political turf. But, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the confrontation here between the executive and legislature also has ideological and even generational dimensions. In city council elections held here last year, dozens of young radicals, many still in their 30s, were swept into power on a platform of rapid democratization. By contrast, Mr. Sobchak - like his counterpart in Moscow, Mayor Gavriil Popov - belongs to a more conservative generation that came to political maturity during the 1960s. Though clearly committed to political and economic reform, Sobchak has sometimes adopted a more cautious approach. One example has been Sobchak's preference for a top-down approach to economic reform that has focused on converting large, state-run enter- prises into joint stock companies. Many members of the city council, on the other hand, say the real catalyst for change must be the city's small entrepreneurs who are capable of creating a market economy from the bottom up.
Move to relocate Questions have also been raised about the significance of Sobchak's decision to relocate his office and staff from the downtown building it now shares with the council to the Smolny Institute. It is here that Lenin's Bolsheviks planned the October revolution of 1917, and it has been the headquarters of the once-dominant Leningrad Communist Party ever since. "It means he cannot imagine that power can be in another place," says Ms. Zelinskaya. The lines of confrontation between Sobchak and the city council have been drawn more sharply in recent weeks. The city's first popularly elected mayor, Sobchak has announced plans to reduce the council from 400 - many of whom, one council deputy concedes, are "dead souls to a more manageable 50. "It's just not possible in a city of 5 million people to have every neighborhood represented," says the city's deputy mayor, Vyacheslav Shcherbakov. "There needs to be serious reform." Determined to keep Sobchak from becoming a "democratic dictator," one council source says, the council is flexing its muscles and tightening the status law to circumscribe the mayor's extensive powers. The current draft defines the council as the city's "highest authority" and gives it more power over the budget, taxes, and prices. "We want a balance because [Sobchak] has too much power," says Mikhail Gorney, cochairman of the council committee reviewing the draft. "He's a brilliant figure, but he wants to decide everything independently."
High public rating In the competition for influence, it is Sobchak - whose popularity rating is nearly four times higher than the council's, according to a recent opinion poll - who has had the upper hand. The mayor burst onto the international scene when he defied St. Petersburg's military commander in a dramatic showdown during last August's attempted coup and prevented federal troops from entering the city. Inside Russia, it was the latest achievement for a man many had already come to see as one of the nation's brightest political stars and a possible successor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. A former law professor, the mayor broke into politics when he was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies, where his telegenic qualities made him a national figure. After joining the Communist Party, then quitting two years later, he ran for mayor as an independent. "I want to be a candidate to prove that an ordinary Soviet professor can beat the candidate endorsed by the Communist Party," a former academic colleague recalls Sobchak saying. The "ordinary" professor won by a whopping 70 percent, out-polling Mr. Yeltsin, who won the Russian presidency the same day. Admirers describe the mayor as a stirring orator who is at once decisive and adaptable. "Just as Yeltsin has grown with events, so has Sobchak," says the former colleague.
Take-charge style Critics say Sobchak's abrasive, take-charge style is an asset in dealing with coup attempts but a liability in day-to-day politics where compromise is required. "Sobchak is a very authoritarian man," says St. Petersburg city councilman Alexander Sungurov. "He is sure he knows the answer to every question. Another view, voiced frequently since the coup, is that while Sobchak is an ideal figure to lead away from communism, his vision may be too limited by his past experience to prevent him from being overtaken by the movement for political and economic reform, as critics say Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has been. "Every person has a role in history," says the former colleague. "Sobchak's is to lead us through the transition. Others will lead us into the future."