Russia Challenges Control of Center on Reform, Resources

RUSSIA is lifting restrictions on foreign trade and is seizing control of natural resources on its territory, according to decrees issued by President Boris Yeltsin.The measures are designed to jump-start the republic's stalling economy. At the same time, they could further complicate Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to revive a political union among the former Soviet republics. Mr. Yeltsin outlined the long-promised economic liberalization measures Friday in a speech to the Russian parliament. Under the decrees, businesses in Russia will no longer require special registration to engage in foreign trade. In addition, the decrees allow for the ruble to be converted into hard currency, such as dollars. All Russian citizens will have the right to obtain dollars and to open hard-currency accounts in authorized Soviet banks. The decrees also will allow foreign companies doing business in Russia to repatriate profits by turning ruble earnings into hard currency. The decrees are the clearest indication to date of Russia's desire to bypass central institutions and become the leader in carrying out market reforms. Yeltsin's plan to allow market forces to dictate the rate of exchange for the ruble is perhaps the most direct challenge to centralized authority over the economy. "The ruble's rate against foreign currencies is formed on the basis of supply and demand," said one decree. Russia also will take control of the production, storage, and export of all precious metals and diamonds on its territory, according to the decrees. A Russian government resolution also states the republic will limit the export of oil as soon as Dec. 1. The measure aims to ensure adequate heating supplies in the republic during what promises to be a winter full of shortages. Russia produces about 67 percent of the precious metal and diamonds in the Soviet Union and 90 percent of the nation's oil. The news that Russia was seizing control of precious metals and other resources came shortly before publication of a Soviet parliament deputy's claim no gold reserves remained in the Soviet state bank, Gosbank. Previous estimates had placed reserve totals anywhere from 240 million to 374 million tons. "Our specialists have analyzed the situation with gold and arrived at the conclusion that the State Bank of the USSR is bankrupt," Alexander Orlov, head of the Soviet parliament's audit commission, told the Trud newspaper. Russia and three other republics - the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Byelorussia - restated an intention to repay their shares of the estimated $80 billion foreign debt, the Tass news agency reported over the weekend. But the republics added they would not be responsible for additional loans negotiated by central authorities without their consent. Representatives of the Group of Seven industrialized nations were due to hold discussions today in Moscow on the Soviet debt question. If the Russian decrees function as intended, they could negate Mr. Gorbachev's plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union, which dissolved in the aftermath of the failed August coup. Leaders of seven republics, including Yeltsin, approved in principle a revised political union treaty during a meeting of the Soviet State Council late Thursday. The pact would preserve central institutions such as the all-union parliament and supreme court, the Interfax news agency reported. It also would retain a united armed force and centralized control of nuclear weapons, but economic relations remained ill-defined. Even if Russia fully backs the treaty, it would be ineffective without the Ukraine's participation, some officials say. The Ukraine was one of the five republics that didn't sign the document, and Ukrainian parliament leader Leonid Kravchuk has questioned the need for a revival of any union structure. "The center has compromised itself," Mr. Kravchuk said in Komsomolskaya Pravda. "Everything should be built on a fundamentally new basis."

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