Russian Crisis: Yeltsin decides to get tough with the regions: President grabs opportunity for sweeping purge of conservative councils

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The Independent Online
SEVEN months ago, President Boris Yeltsin went on national television to declare 'special rule' and, to prove he was serious, sack Vitaly Mukha, a powerful, deeply conservative regional baron from Siberia.

Within in a week, 'special rule' was dead, Mr Mukha was back at his job as Novosibirsk regional governor and Mr Yeltsin, worried about impeachment, was eating humble pie at a meeting of regional potentates in Moscow. Mr Mukha's dismissal had all been a terrible mistake, he assured them, and Kremlin aides responsible for the gaffe would be sacked.

Yesterday, Mr Yeltsin got his revenge. In a quarrel that may prove as important in the long run as the blitz on the White House, not merely for his own political survival but the future of serious reform across Russia, he signed a second decree sacking Mr Mukha. This time it should stick.

After nearly 18 months of haggling with local councils and regional governors, fighting with them over the pace of privatisation, tax rates, access to natural resources and countless other issues, Mr Yeltsin has decided to get tough. He is going after both governors and councils.

Some of Mr Yeltsin's opponents in the regions see the bloodshed in Moscow as deliberately planned to allow a sweeping purge of his opponents in the regions. 'It was all done to repress the centres of resistance, the cruelty was a show, it was a kind of a deterrent,' said Ivan Fedoseev, a hardline deputy from Irkutsk who took refuge yesterday in the offices of Pravda newspaper to commiserate with like-minded conservatives about their rout. 'They wanted to show they were ready for anything.'

He exaggerates. The tide, though, has turned. But as in August 1991, when Mr Yeltsin had a mandate for radical change after defeating the hardline putsch only to squander much of it by going on holiday, it could quickly turn back. Mr Yeltsin seems determined not to make the same mistake, particularly in the regions, where the local elite, though nominally elected, is usually merely the Communist Party under a different name.

Councils - or Soviets - are miniature replicas of the Moscow parliament, the Supreme Soviet, dissolved by Mr Yeltsin on 21 September and bombarded into submission by tanks on Monday, only more conservative in many cases. Likely to be more forward-looking is the governor, sometimes elected but sometimes simply appointed by local bureaucrats and then confirmed by the Kremlin.

Mr Muhka is a prime example of how the old apparat hangs on. He used to be Novosibirsk's Communist Party secretary. After the 1991 putsch he metamorphosed into a stern defender of parliamentary democracy and a strong opponent of radical economic reform. It was at his instigation that Novosibirsk voted to temporarily suspend privatisation auctions in the region.

He feted Ruslan Khasbulatov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, receiving him in Novosibirsk last winter with a lavish reception befitting the most extravagant Brezhnev baron. And when Mr Yeltsin tried to sack him in March he turned to Mr Khasbulatov. He flew to Moscow to canvass and win support. Mr Yeltsin, confronting an impeachment vote in the full parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, backed down.

This time everything was different. After two weeks of frenetic political activity, with meetings in Moscow and Siberia, Mr Mukha was yesterday incommunicado. An aide said he had checked into hospital. The timely illness is a well- established feature of Communist Party etiquette in times of political stress. Before taking to his hospital bed, though, he gave an interview to a local television reporter, stressing that Novisibirsk had always and would continue to obey orders. He is cowed.

The mutiny, for the time being, is over. Mr Mukha was one of the first to condemn the dissolution of parliament. He moderated this stand as it became clear Mr Yeltsin might win but played a leading role in rallying leaders from across Siberia. Last Tuesday, at a meeting in Novosibirsk, 14 Siberian bosses voted to send an ultimatum to the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, in Moscow. It threatened that unless Mr Yeltsin lifted the blockade on parliament, the trans-Siberian railway, the main transport link between the European and Far Eastern portions of Russia, would be cut.

Such steps, and the establishment of a plethora of regional bodies by increasingly assertive local politicians, helped convince Mr Yeltsin of the need to crush parliament's defiant mutiny in Moscow.

(Map omitted)