Russia's Regions Emerge As Key Power Brokers

Leaders in hinterlands weigh their options: Leave the troubled federation or stick with it

THE question for many here is not who will win the vicious power struggle between the Russian president and his conservative enemies in parliament. It is: Will be the struggle cause the Russian Federation to disintegrate?

The leaders of the regions and the ethnic republics that make up the vast Russian Federation emerged as an independent and increasingly powerful force at the special session of the Congress of Peoples Deputies that wrapped up over the weekend.

For some of them, the seemingly endless scramble for authority behind the Kremlin walls shows that the central government is dysfunctional, and that the federation is probably doomed.

"If Russia is breaking up then there is one question that I must ask: `Why do we have to go down together with it?,' " says Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, the parliament chairman of the Tuva Autonomous Republic, a region about 3,000 miles east of Moscow along the Mongolian border.

Mr. Bicheldei says Tuva may schedule a referendum April 11 on "leaving the Russian Federation." An "absolute majority of the population" would support such a proposal, he says.

Other regional leaders are not looking to jump ship just yet but are exasperated at the inability of those involved in the Moscow power struggle to put their differences aside for the good of the federation.

"The most important issue today is the perfection of relations within the federation in order not to slip into a Yugoslav ... scenario," says Viktor Stepanov, parliament head of the Karelian Autonomous Republic, an ethnic homeland bordering Finland.

Though many are pessimistic, not all regional leaders are convinced events in Moscow will lead to the breakup of Russia. Valentin Fyodorov, the governor of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, is confident Yeltsin will win the struggle for power and preserve the federation.

"Executive power," Mr. Fyodorov says, "it is a quasi-dictatorship, it always represents order, whereas the parliament stands for disintegration."

Russia is a federation composed of 21 ethnically determined regions along with largely Russian-populated areas such as in Siberia and the Far East. Already two autonomous republics - Tatarstan in the Volga region and Chechenya in the northern Caucasus - are agitating for independence. Several more threaten to follow suit.

The danger of separatism is being exacerbated, some observers say, by the attempts of both Mr. Yeltsin and parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, the president's bitter rival, to drag the regions and autonomous republics into the fray.

"Khasbulatov is trying to find support in the regions, giving promises to regional elites that they will get power if Yeltsin is made a [symbolic] head of state and the Supreme Soviet [parliament] becomes the real power," alleges Sergei Tsyplyaev, the president's representative in St. Petersburg.

Similar charges are made against the president. But whatever the motivation of the overtures, these moves will only accelerate the Russian Federation's disintegration, warns liberal legislator Viktor Sheinis.

"The power struggle ... is being used by certain forces in the provinces, which are trying to distance themselves from the center, from Russia," Mr. Sheinis says.

"By trying to win the support of the local administrative elite," he continues, "both the president and [the chairman of] the Supreme Soviet are taking steps to satisfy those ambitions, which under no circumstances should be satisfied."

In Yeltsin's case, his authority has been weakened by the war of attrition over the past few Congress sessions, in which hard-liners have steadily chipped away at his powers. The regional leaders stepped into the struggle only to oppose the president's desire to hold a referendum on power sharing and a new constitution, fearing such a vote could undermine their drive for greater rights.

One of Yeltsin's last hopes for eventual victory now may rest in opening a second front against the conservative Congress by enlisting the support of Russia's regions.

Hard-line legislators, such as Ilya Konstantinov, say the president may try to override the Constitution and the Congress by concluding a treaty with regions and autonomous republics that would turn Russia into a confederation, or something with even looser ties to a central government. Such a treaty, hard-liners add, would be something akin to the so-called Minsk Treaty, the December 1991 pact signed by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus that smashed the Soviet Union and gave birth to the Commonwealth of Inde pendent States, a loose confederation of 10 former Soviet republics.

Staving off an attempt by Yeltsin to outflank the Congress is another reason prompting Mr. Khasbulatov to seek the support of the regions.

Khasbulatov and the hard-liners are not the only ones opposing a possible Yeltsin attempt to recreate Russia. Valery Zorkin, chairman of the Constitutional Court, says it is essential "to avert the materialization of grim prophecies about the impending new Belozhevskaya Pushcha [Minsk] agreement."

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