WITH its dirty streets and blocks of gray, prefabricated apartments, Saransk hardly stands out among other cities in the Russian heartland.
But this capital of the Mordovian autonomous region, about 300 miles east of Moscow, has become a key battleground in the political fight between President Boris Yeltsin and his opponents in the Russian Federation parliament.
The regional parliament last week voted to abolish the presidency of the republic. It also has placed the regional Cabinet under legislative control, emasculating local executive authority.
The Mordovian events echo the larger fight between Mr. Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. And with a crucial nationwide April 25 referendum expected to signal public support for either the Russian president or the parliament, the situation here is attracting great interest in Moscow.
"Mordovia has become the proving ground, where [Yeltsin's opponents] are working out their strategy to overpower executive power," ousted Mordovian President Vasily Guslyannikov said in an interview. The stakes in this battle are high, Mr. Guslyannikov adds. If the decision to oust him is not reversed, it could spark a chain reaction of moves against executive authority in other Russian regions that could have "unfortunate consequences" for Russia's reform effort, he says.
In many areas, executive authorities advocate Yeltsin's approach to Russia's market conversion, while most local legislatures, like the federal parliament, want a slower pace and different priorities for reforms. Prominent Russian parliament hard-liners, including Sergei Baburin and Vladimir Isakov, have visited Saransk in recent weeks to consult with local legislative leaders on their anti-executive offensive.
Yeltsin, alarmed by the attack on executive power, issued a decree suspending the Mordovian parliament's decision until the Russian Constitutional Court can rule on the case. Yeltsin also dispatched Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai to Saransk to work out defensive tactics for Guslyannikov.
But Nikolai Biryukov, the chairman of the Mordovian Supreme Soviet, or parliament, is ignoring Yeltsin's decree, saying the Russian president has no jurisdiction over Mordovian affairs, according to the Russian Federation Treaty.
"The [Mordovian] Supreme Soviet introduced the post of president, it has the right to revoke its own decision," Mr. Biryukov says, sitting in his office under a painting of Lenin.
The nominal reason for abolishing the presidency was a set of corruption allegations against Guslyannikov. But Mordovian parliament members also say their action was prompted by Guslyannikov's lack of a regional development plan to counter Russia's disastrous economic collapse.
Guslyannikov denies the corruption charges and says his chances to reverse the local parliament's decision hinge on the April 25 referendum, which could decide the national power struggle. The ballot will have four questions, including votes of confidence in Yeltsin and the current course of reform.
"If people come to the polls and say `no' to a return to the past ... then the situation will normalize," Guslyannikov says. But given the widespread public apathy toward politics, he realizes there are long odds against him.
The overwhelmingly conservative Mordovian parliament, meanwhile, is pushing ahead. Taking the reins of government, the legislature Friday installed Valery Shvetsov, former deputy parliament chairman, as head of the Cabinet. The move effectively created two Cabinets in Mordovia, one headed by parliament the other headed by the president.
The agriculturally oriented autonomous region of 1 million is nominally an ethnic homeland for Mordvins, distant relatives of Finns. But most ethnic Mordvins, who make up less than 30 percent of the republic's population, are thoroughly Russified.