GEN. Vladimir Seleznov bears a newly coined and apparently exalted title Representative of the President of Russia for Chelyabinsk Oblast." His anteroom full of supplicants is a familiar sign of power.
But the concealed pistol General Seleznov carries in the outer pocket of his wool coat as he tours the markets in this Siberian city belies the security of his authority. All appointees of Russian President Boris Yeltsin have been told to carry the guns, he says, as protection against vaguely defined threats.
Months after the failed August putsch, Mr. Yeltsin's government is still struggling to assert its control over the Russian heartland. In regions such as this concentration of industry in the southern Urals, Yeltsin's men are embroiled in conflict with the remnants of the old local power structure.
Yeltsin's loyalists were dispatched to regions and cities across Russia as part of a new post-coup presidential power structure. Alongside the personal representative, who is charged with providing at least monthly reports on the implementation of policies, Yeltsin has named a chief administrator in each region to supplant the former executive committee of the oblast soviet (regional council).
Seleznov, who also serves as a member of the Russian parliament from Chelyabinsk, portrays this as an attempt to learn from the lessons of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to realize his reform plans.
"When Gorbachev issued his decrees, he didn't have the system to implement them," he says.
Yeltsin's aides have repeatedly shown their desire to get rid of the soviets, cumbersome pseudo-parliaments which functioned merely to mask Communist Party rule. Even after reforms brought elections with alternative choices, the now-banned party was still the dominant force. Hostile response
The Chelyabinsk soviet's response to Yeltsin's men, like that of many others across Russia, is one of barely concealed hostility. The local leaders say this usurps the power of the legislature and call it a new form of authoritarianism. Their words mirror angry objections from Russian parliament leaders to Yeltsin's top-down rule.
"To claim the soviets are now a brake on reform is nothing more than a return to totalitarianism, to one-party control," spits soviet official Andrei Kasilov.
"Before the Communist Party was considered the enemy of all reforms, but now it doesn't exist," adds soviet Deputy Chairman Alexander Salomatkin.
The central administration is trying to find another enemy on which to blame the failure of reform, and this 'enemy' is the old soviets ... where many of the old nomenklatura [the Party elite] still sit."
The stern, blond Salomatkin claims to back reforms, including the shift to a market economy. But he avoids any concrete comments, claiming not to be a specialist on economic matters. Later he bursts into a brief tirade against the onrush of Western business, revealing the wounded pride common among the former party elite.
The Russian government, Mr. Salomatkin says, "is bartering our natural resources to the West in exchange for consumer goods, turning us into a colony which exports raw materials."
Seleznov downplays the ideological conflict. Many members of the soviet were in the Communist Party, he says, "but the fact is, we all came out of there. I myself am the former head of the chair of Marxism-Leninism at the military academy in Chelyabinsk."
Indeed the man Yeltsin chose to be chief administrator, Vadim Solovyov, ran the Chelyabinsk branch of the Communist Party, as well as serving as chairman of the city soviet. Alexander Podoprigora, the red-bearded young editor of the local reformist paper Komanda (Team), describes Solovyov as "among those party workers who decisively and in time followed Yeltsin in breaking away from the old system." He was an early backer of the Democratic Rossiya movement, the coalition of democratic groups and parties that backed Yeltsin's drive for power.
His rival is oblast soviet chairman Pyotr Sumin, whose critics even credit him with being a hard-working administrator.
"He always worked in the interests of the region," says Andrei Belishko, who was Sumin's deputy and became deputy chairman of the new administration. But he gently suggests that Mr. Sumin was increasingly influenced by advisers opposed to reform.
The bitterness of the political fight was heightened by the August coup and its aftermath. In November, Sumin was suggested for the post of chief administrator by the local soviet, but his candidacy was undermined by accusations he backed the coup organizers.
Though a parliamentary commission later cleared him of such charges, his backers still feel compelled to offer a pile of documents providing almost hour-by-hour evidence that Sumin never supported the hard-line putsch. Passive response
The most serious accusation leveled at Sumin is that he failed to do what Solovyov did on the first day of the coup - walk out to a demonstration in the central square organized by the local democrats and openly declare his opposition to the coup.
But beyond ideology and personality, the struggle in Chelyabinsk reflects a broader problem throughout Russia - the continued absence of any legal structure of government. Efforts to pass a new constitution drafted by reformers have been repeatedly stymied, forcing Yeltsin to lay a new structure on top of the old.
"There is no clear law about the division of functions between the soviet and the administration," admits Seleznov. "This conflict is inevitable in such a legal vacuum."
Both oblast soviet leader Salomatkin, a lawyer by training, and the Yeltsin administrators point to numerous cases where Yeltsin's decrees simply contradict laws passed previously by the Russian parliament, including those which recognize the local soviet as the supreme authority.
The previous executive committee was a body of the soviet, created by and subordinated to it. "Now, by presidential decree, an administration was created and its head nominated by the president, not elected," says Seleznov.
The disputes between the old and new power structures are often reduced to a form seen at every level of government in Russia these days - a fight over control of property. By law, the soviets are legal owners of all property in their regions. But Yeltsin's new administration now claims that authority.
Both Salomatkin and deputy administrator Belishko offer similar visions of what local government in Russia should ultimately look like - something quite close to municipal and state governments in the United States. Governors and mayors should be directly elected and work with a small, professional legislature whose powers are clearly separated and defined, they propose.
But Mr. Belishko repeats an argument made late last year by Yeltsin's government when it rejected a move in the Russian parliament to elect the local administrators.
Amid radical reform and economic crisis, they cannot afford another half year of elections, he says. First there should be "stabilization," then elections, the Yeltsin administrator argues, perhaps after two to three years. No stability
In the meantime however the political battles stand in the way of such "stability.We don't even have laws to form a budget for 1992," Belishko admits.
Such chaos lends support to some Yeltsin backers who argue for giving more power to the president in a time of unsettling change. "Only a real power structure can manage the situation if we are to see results in the next eight to 10 months," contends Komanda editor Podoprigora. "If not, the red banner will appear again - or the brown banner. There is no choice."