AS President Boris Yeltsin steps up his campaign to assert Kremlin authority across Russia's provinces in the aftermath of the armed rebellion in Moscow, Russia's ethnic republic of Bashkortostan is fighting to keep its own political and economic sovereignty.
Last week, the Turkic-speaking region 680 miles east of Moscow suffered a severe setback when Russia's Constitutional Assembly submitted a new draft law of the constitution that omitted reference to the sovereignty of Russia's 20 ethnic republics.
``We just want to preserve our republic the way it is,'' says Marat Abuzarov, an aide to Bashkortostan's leader, Murtaza Rakhimov.
``They promised us full independence in solving all political questions ourselves, but the Russian president is very hard to believe, because he has broken a lot of agreements in the past,'' laments Mr. Abuzarov from his light green office in the capital of Ufa.
Keeping a tight rein on Russia's 88 republics and regions is mandatory for Mr. Yeltsin, who wants to keep the country from taking the same route of ethnic and political friction that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Nationalist leaders in ethnically mixed Bashkortostan say they do not seek secession. But the Muslim Bashkir minority places a high value on Bashkortostan's republican status.
``The time is gone when the Kremlin can dictate to the people of the regions how to live,'' Chairman Rakhimov angrily told the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Oct. 23. Ethnic mixture
An industrial region in the foothills of the Ural mountains, Bashkortostan was under Mongol rule until Ivan the Terrible conquered the area in 1557, five years after taking over neighboring Tatarstan, which declared independence from Moscow last year.
The ethnic mix in the region complicates things. Bashkortostan is home to about 70 different nationalities, with 22 percent being Bashkir, 27 percent Tatar, and 39 percent Russian.
Bashkortostan was made an ``autonomous republic'' in the Soviet era, and was transformed into a full-blooded ``republic'' under Yeltsin. That status gave regional leaders the freedom to devise their own budget, have their own tax laws, pass separate legislation, and seek their own domestic and foreign economic partners.
It also allowed them to have their cake and eat it too, to receive federal services such as defense, transport, and communications while paying few taxes.
``The new project of the constitution ... puts us in the same situation we were in before perestroika: as an autonomous republic without any real rights,'' complains Venir Samigullin, a constitutional expert for Bashkortostan's parliament.
Producer of one-third of Russia's gasoline and a prime mover in the defense and chemical industries, Bashkortostan is important for Russia - although the republic has recently gained control over many of its own enterprises.
Prices for housing, gasoline, and basic foodstuffs are generally cheaper than in Moscow and inflation is lower, but the capital nonetheless looks unchanged since the Soviet era.
Dilapidated concrete apartment houses sit alongside Siberian wooden homes with gingerbread-style shutters. Few private kiosks line Ufa's sidewalks, and most shops are still government-owned. Only a handful of foreign businesses have opened.
``Local leaders want to develop the market economy only to the extent that everything remains under their control,'' says Yuri Kalitayev, a Ukrainian who is chairman of the local branch of the conservative Democratic Party of Russia.
``Sovereignty is supposed to mean freedom, but here it's just an attempt by the local elite that was formed during the Soviet era to put the brake on the reforms that were begun by Russia.''
In April, lawmakers held their own republican referendum on economic independence in conjunction with Yeltsin's nationwide referendum on his leadership. While the majority of Bashkortostan's 4 million people supported Yeltsin in the referendum, about 75 percent also voted ``yes'' to making the republic an ``independent economic entity.''
But now leaders are saying Moscow is reneging on promises to leave them alone. Last week, a group of factory directors, academics, and heads of political parties protested Yeltsin's proposal to send a presidential representative to oversee how his policies are carried out in the republic. Nevertheless, local leaders gave in to pressure from Moscow and supported Yeltsin when he needed it most - during the hard-line rebellion last month. Elections expected
Last week, Yeltsin ordered more than 60 regions to hold elections to new local parliaments between December 1993 and March 1994, and ``recommended'' that ethnic republics do the same. Bashkortostan has refused Yeltsin's order for regional councils to disband, but new political blocs are forming for the coming elections.
New elections will allow local leaders to regroup and reassert their power, while seemingly doing what Moscow wants. And in another move to consolidate power, lawmakers plan to hold their own presidential elections.
Altaf Gaifullin, deputy chairman of the radical Bashkir People's Party, has been campaigning lately in support of Rakhimov, the ethnic Bashkir Supreme Soviet chairman who many believe has the best chance of becoming president.
``Only 22 percent of the people in Bashkortostan are Bashkirs. If Rakhimov runs, we'll all put our support behind him,'' he says.
But Rafis Kadyrov, Rakhimov's main political rival and a former Red Army captain who founded the private bank Vostok, is campaigning on a platform of improved ties with Russia combined with a slow, easy transition to reform.
``We need economic stability, and we can't get it through sovereignty,'' says Kadyrov. ``If we get complete sovereignty, in 6 months our living standards will drop 60-70 percent.''