Russian Battle Moves to Regions
Having gained the upper hand against the national parliament in Moscow, Yeltsin has sent his chief envoy to the Urals region to take on the `last fortress of communism' - regional legislatures
CHELYABINSK, RUSSIA — THE Russian White House, home of the country's Supreme Soviet, stands in blackened ruin. But the government's battle against the parliament's little brothers - the soviets of Russia's regions, cities, and towns - is just beginning.
For two years, this Urals industrial region, home to vast tank factories and steel foundries, has been the site of one of the most bitter struggles for power between an administration loyal to President Boris Yeltsin and councils loyal to the federal parliament. It has been a see-saw war, one that the council, or soviet, was close to winning until the events in Moscow drastically tipped the balance of power back the other way.
Vadim Solovyov, Yeltsin's hand-picked chief administrator here, watched the assault on the White House on CNN from a television in the Kremlin. He rushed back to Chelyabinsk, determined to seize the opportunity now before them.
``After the White House takeover, the soviets, the last fortress of communism, are in state of agony,'' Mr. Solovyov said in an interview in his Chelyabinsk office, formerly headquarters of the Communist Party, last Friday. Live to fight another day
Nearby, in the green-painted building that houses the oblast (regional) soviet, Solovyov's foes are trying to dig themselves out from the political rubble, hoping to find a way to live to fight another day.
``Solovyov wants to take revenge on us but we will fight by all legal means,'' Anatoly Nacharov, the jowly former factory director who recently assumed the chairmanship of the soviet, says defiantly from his office overlooking the city's main square, still dominated by a statue of Lenin striding off into the Communist future. Self-dissolution, the path urged on them by Yeltsin, is out of the question, the soviet leader says. ``We were elected by the people and we will fulfill our duties.''
But Mr. Nacharov's brave words do not conceal a full-scale retreat. The soviet officials are already accomodating themselves to allow elections to a new regional duma, a smaller, professional parliament, in December, simultaneously with elections to a new federal parliament. A Yeltsin decree issued on Saturday dissolved the lower level district and town soviets while readying elections for new oblast and city dumas.
``There should be no haste in this but if there is no other way out, we are ready,'' says Mr. Nacharov. ``I'm sure 90 percent of the seats, or at least more than half, will be ours if we are not forbidden to run for election.''
Last Thursday, the Chelyabinsk soviet, along with 30 other regional councils that had refused to support President Yeltsin's Sept. 21 decree dissolving the Supreme Soviet, received a telegram demanding they reverse that decision within three days. So far, they have refused, insisting they did nothing wrong in calling for the Russian Constitution to be upheld. A brief statement did vaguely condemn the ``instigators'' of the violence in Moscow, but officially they remain reluctant to hold parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi responsible for the events.
``We do feel the parliament had betrayed us,'' says Nacharov. The parliament was gaining support in its defiance of Yeltsin, he claims. ``But when they resorted to bloodshed ... either they were fools or adventurists.''
Such words do little to assuage Solovyov and his supporters. The Chelyabinsk administrator accuses the soviet of backing the local branches of the extremist Communist and fascist groups that were involved in the armed actions in Moscow. They are ready to dissolve the regional soviet at any moment. If they have a worry, it is that the president will waver, influenced by advisers who argue against a sweeping dismantling of the soviets that still have considerable influence in many parts of this vast land.
``Now we should not lose tempo,'' says Solovyov. ``Those reactionary forces should be finished with, of course in a democratic way.''
On Sunday, after Yeltsin's decree dissolving the local soviets arrived by fax, Yeltsin's men were hurriedly meeting to figure out how to exploit a particular clause stating that those soviets that cannot execute their powers due to the lack of a quorum can be replaced by the administration. Personal rivalry
The battle in Chelyabinsk, however, is more complicated than either side is prepared to admit. It is fueled by an intense personal rivaly between the two main actors - Solovyov and Pyotr Sumin, the leader of the soviet forces. Both men grew up in the Communist Party establishment: Solovyov became party secretary of Chelybanisk city while Sumin became the regional party boss.
``They used to visit each other every evening and drink beer. They were very close friends,'' says Irina Solovyova, the daughter of Solovyov. They built country homes next to each other and talked of someday becoming farmers, she recalls.
Then came the August 1991 attempted coup, when Solovyov without hesitation backed Yeltsin while Sumin waited a day or two. Solovyov was rewarded with the appointment as Yeltsin's administrator, despite the fact that the soviet backed Sumin. ``They met at the airport and Sumin said, `I'll never forgive you that you rose higher than I,' '' recounts Ms. Solovyova. Finding a niche
But the battle gradually grew more political, with Sumin opposing the radical economic reforms introduced in January 1992. Solovyov had become a believer in capitalism, fueled at first in secret by a head-turning visit to the US in 1985, his daughter says. As for Sumin, ``he's not a true communist,'' admits Solovyov's daughter, a strong anticommunist herself. ``He's trying to find a new niche. He doesn't like the free market.''
Sumin found his niche by backing Khasbulatov and the Supreme Soviet in their struggle against Yeltsin's reforms. He challenged Solovyov by calling an election in spring for the administrator's post, which he won handily after Solovyov boycotted the vote as illegal. After that, both men claimed to be administrator, though the Russian Supreme Court had backed Sumin's vote as legal.
Russia is not ready to have its administrators elected, says Solovyov, who otherwise claims to desire democracy. ``The experience of electing heads of administration shows that at this stage, first secretaries of oblast [Communist] party committees manage to get into this post,'' he says, referring to a number of such elections last spring. ``Until a state of law is firmly built in this country, the President has to appoint administrators.''
The two men's personal and political antipathy eventually drove Solovyov to build a six-foot wall between their country houses to avoid embarrassing encounters.
On the streets of Chelyabinsk, there is strong backing for Yeltsin's actions in Moscow but little support for either side of the regional war. Both the soviet and the administrator should be re-elected says Tamara Timanova, a public utility worker.
``The oblast soviet is not much use,'' she says, but the administration is also bad. ``It comes from the former party structures. Solovyov is a former party leader and his methods and ways of acting are the same as before. We want new people who don't have that party training.''