Mordovia rift bodes ill for Yeltsin cause: A dangerous precedent is being set by the tiny republic

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The Independent Online
THE PRESIDENT - for that is the title still painted on his door and proclaimed, albeit half-heartedly, by his shrinking staff - has just suffered another slight: 'They took away my table and chair,' he complains meekly, 'The Communists are very strong.'

But the missing furniture, removed, along with his personal microphone, from the podium of the local parliament in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, is the least of President Vasily Guslyannikov's worries. More serious is a threat to disconnect the phone lines to his 8th-floor office. But even that he could cope with. Few people call now anyway. Nor do they visit. The halls of what used to be the Communist Party headquarters of Mordovia are silent, the car park deserted, a vast cloakroom near a sculpture of Lenin in the lobby empty except for two old coats.

Mr Guslyannikov's real problem is more serious: his job as president has just been abolished. 'He can sit in his office if he wants,' says Nikolai Birukov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, and chief agent of Mordovia's miniature constitutional coup, 'This does not mean he has a job.'

Mr Guslyannikov, a skinny former scientist, vows to hang on. He has recorded a radio appeal and, if he keeps control of the local transmission station long enough, will broadcast it to the people he was elected to govern.

'I'm still here; I'm still the president,' he insists, 'I've got identification papers in my pocket to prove it.' He fumbles in his jacket and pulls out what looks like a bus pass: a plastic folder containing a slip of card stamped with an official seal, signed by Boris Yeltsin and pasted with a passport photograph. He displays it proudly: 'See, it says I'm president.'

Something very odd - and very ominous - is going on in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Mordovia, where, over the past week, a bizarre struggle for power has set a dangerous precedent for a similar, but far more important, battle for the Kremlin.

Mordovia, one of Russia's 16 autonomous republics vested with all the trappings of a separate state, is itself of little consequence: it has only a million people and little industry other than a light-bulb factory in Saransk, 400 miles south-east of Moscow. Unlike other restive republics, it has no interest in independence. Seventy per cent of the population is Russian, with the rest made up by two separate Finnic-speaking ethnic groups. For Moscow, though, the challenge presented by Mordovia is perhaps more serious than ethnic separatism - a full-scale assault on the very notion of presidential authority.

The tribulations of Mr Guslyannikov come only two weeks before a national referendum on President Yeltsin's rule and presage what may come next in Moscow. 'Mordovia has become a test site,' says Mr Guslyannikov, flanked by his last remaining allies: two local journalists, his spokesman and a fretful factotum serving coffee and biscuits. 'The aim is to destroy the entire executive branch of government.'

Across Russia, presidential power - and with it economic reform - is under attack. Having narrowly failed to impeach Mr Yeltsin at an emergency session of the Congress of People's Deputies last month, conservatives are rallying their forces outside Moscow. And the fate of Mr Guslyannikov in Mordovia is, they hope, a model of what could happen to Mr Yeltsin.

'Mordovia has abolished the post of president,' gloated an article in Sovietskaya Rossiya by Vladimir Isakov, one of several hardliners who have visited Saransk to encourage the local parliament, 'Who will be next?'

President Yeltsin, in no doubt that he is the ultimate target, issued a decree ordering Mr Guslyannikov reinstated and sent Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai to remonstrate with the Mordovian parliament. Instead of backing down, legislators stepped up their attack: they created a new post of prime minister, appointed deputy speaker, Valery Shvetsov, to fill it and told him to take over all the president's duties.

The rise and fall of President Guslyannikov is a fable of the hopes and failures of Russian reform. Elected president in December 1991, he rode to power on what, only four months after the defeat of the Moscow coup, seemed an unstoppable wave of anti- Communism. He moved into the Communist headquarters, installed himself in the office of the ousted party secretary, emptied the bookshelves of Lenin's works and placed a Russian flag next to his desk.

The honeymoon, though, was brief. The local economy went into a nosedive; his supporters fell away and his enemies began to regroup. As in Moscow, parliament became the focus of opposition. The man he defeated in the presidential race, the Communist Party's former secretary for agriculture, Nikolai Birukov, became parliamentary chairman and plotted his revenge.

The first test of strength came in a vote on Mordovia's name. Mr Guslyannikov wanted the words socialist and soviet dropped. Parliament voted to keep them, just as the Congress in Moscow voted to keep the hammer and sickle as Russia's emblem.

Last week, symbolism gave way to brutal action. The Supreme Soviet voted to sack Mr Guslyannikov and abolish his post. Out of 169 deputies only nine voted to preserve the presidency. From the people who had elected him only 16 months earlier came not even a whimper of protest.

As a pretext for their coup, legislators cited vague claims of corruption by Mr Guslyannikov's staff and his wife. But Mr Birukov speaks openly of the real motive: 'The Supreme Soviet is the ultimate source of all authority. It alone represents the people . . . We don't need a president.'

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