PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin appears on paper to have achieved for Russia what eluded Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.
Representatives from many of Russia's so-called autonomous republics, regions, and territories gathered March 31 in the Kremlin to sign a federation treaty. The document, which took 18 months to negotiate, is designed to clearly establish the rights and responsibilities of Mr. Yeltsin's government in Moscow and the leaders of Russia's numerous ethnic minorities in their quasi-autonomous homelands. The document boosts the decision-making powers of the autonomous areas.
"Today we can tell our fellow citizens, our peoples who for centuries lived together, all the world community, that Russia was, is, and will be united," Yeltsin said at the treaty-signing ceremony.
During the last days of the Soviet Union, Mr. Gorbachev sought desperately to preserve the state under a revamped union treaty, but his efforts were ultimately preempted by the failed August coup, which only hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russian officials say their federation treaty in theory will make it possible for the Russian Federation to avoid the type of bitter ethnic conflicts that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. They also see it as an important first step toward a new Russian constitution that would effectively sever the last links with the old communist system.
Officials envision parts of the federation treaty being incorporated into the constitution. The Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's supreme legislature, will debate a new draft constitution when its session begins April 6.
It remains to be seen what effect the treaty will have in practice on calming sometimes tense relations between Moscow and its autonomous constituencies. Eighteen of Russia's 20 autonomous republics, regions, and territories signed the treaty.
The most independence-minded of the autonomous republics, Chechen-Ingushetia and Tatarstan, refused to sign. Several other autonomous republics had doubts regarding the treaty but signed it anyway.
Critics of the federation pact have voiced many of the same complaints that hounded Gorbachev's union treaty effort, namely that the center seeks to retain the lion's share of power, while giving the outlying regions only symbolic authority.
Russian authorities, meanwhile, profess their tactics and strategy differ greatly from the former Soviet leader's.
"We differ from Gorbachev in that we aren't twisting anyone's arm," Ramazan Abdulatipov, chairman of the Russian parliament's Council of Nationalities, said at a news conference. "If you don't want to sign then don't sign. We don't see any tragedy in that."
Yeltsin's Russia has shown more flexibility in dealing with its restive nationalities than did Gorbachev's Soviet Union. For example, Russia has offered to sign a bilateral treaty with Tatarstan, where a March 21 referendum on independence won 61 percent of the vote, instead of the federation pact. Friendly discussions were also held last month with Chechen-Ingushetia, which declared independence in November.
HOWEVER, the more some Russian officials, such as Mr. Abdulatipov, attempt to distance themselves from Gorbachev's policies, the more they end up sounding like their Soviet forefathers. Abdulatipov expressed a reluctance to conclude bilateral treaties, revealing a touch of the old imperial attitude that was the undoing of the Soviet Union.
"It's possible to sign a bilateral agreement with a country like Turkey, but autonomous republics aren't independent countries," Abdulatipov says. In addition, an autonomous republic that does not sign the federation treaty or a bilateral agreement won't be allowed to leave the fold, added Abdulatipov. Therefore, the autonomous republics' membership in the Russian Federation is a fait accompli.
"Those republics that don't participate have lost out due to the fact they weren't able to make suggestions" for revisions in the federation treaty, Abdulatipov says. "Those who don't sign will join the federation under the constitution."
When asked if the treaty will actually be able to stem the rebellious mood simmering in some of Russia's autonomous republics, Abdulatipov could only manage to say: "Time will tell."
The treaty signing comes at a time when discontent is on the rise, spurred on by the economic hardships caused by the government's crash reform program.
Ethnic minorities are not the only ones resisting. There has been talk of seccession expressed in mainly Russian areas of Siberia.
If the treaty fails to bring stability to Russia, the results could be catastrophic for ethnic minorities seeking greater rights, suggests Nikolai Ryabov, chairman of the parliament's Council of Republic. Ultranationalist politicians, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, could exploit the treaty's shortcomings to advance their own Russia-for-the-Russians policies, he says.
"Nonacceptance of the treaty and nonacceptance of the constitution is the equivalent of extending a helping hand to Zhirinovsky and his ilk to lift them onto the center stage of the political arena," Mr. Ryabov says.