Russia's regions start to rebel as Kremlin's grip weakens

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The Independent Online
AS RUSSIA'S political leaders meet today for another attempt to strike a deal in the dispute over President Boris Yeltsin's chosen prime minister, evidence is growing that the Kremlin's grip over the country is weakening.

A car bomb at the weekend in the southern republic of Dagestan, an Islamic republic that borders Chechnya, killed 16 and injured 80. It has deepened concern that Moscow is no longer able to impose its will across the land. The blast, described by Mr Yeltsin as "an attempt to tear apart the unity of the Russian Federation", was a reminder of the fragility of the relationship binding Moscow to Russia's regions, which has been placed under acute strain by the economic collapse.

Evidence that some of the 89 republics, regions and territories are using the chaos to seize more power has been mounting since the crisis began last month. The upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, made up of regional leaders, last week symbolically voted to support the acting prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who faces a second vote over his job in the Duma today.

But what they say in Moscow and do back home differs. The most stunning example is the decision of the Yakutia republic, in the Far East, to place its gold production under the control of local authorities and limit sales to the federal government and banks. But there are others: the governor of Khakassiya in Siberia is the brother and neighbour of General Alexander Lebed. Comparing Mr Yeltsin to "Genghis Khan and Hitler", Gen Lebed has announced his region will no longer transfer any funds to Moscow. The general himself has imposed a price freeze in his region of Krasnoyarsk, banning increases of more than 10 per cent.

The governor of the Kuzbass, the Siberian region that produces half Russia's coal, is threatening Moscow that miners will block rail lines across his turf if federal authorities fail to pay five months of back-pay. One governor, in Saratov, has mentioned introducing his own currency.

Under the cover of the crisis, Tatarstan, a republic on the Volga River, has tried to protect local producers by slapping a 10 per cent import tax on flour from outside its borders, violating a federal constitutional clause defining Russia as one market. And in Voronezh, in the Red Belt part of southern Russia, city authorities have been seizing control of semi-privatised enterprises, such as the pharmacies, and returning them to government control. Moscow's sway in the regions has always varied from strong to tenuous, but it was weakened last year when Mr Yeltsin lost the power to appoint governors, who are now all elected.

Moscow often seems willing to let them go their own way, no matter how much corruption and illegality abounds, so long as they pay taxes. Now, however, they are in danger of becoming even more remote, and even more cavalier about the constitution and distant hand of federal power.