Russia's provinces fight battles of their own

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The Independent Online
YET AGAIN, the vastness of Russia comes into play in the epic power struggles taking place in Moscow this week. Yesterday, the battles continued behind closed doors as the parliament and President Yeltsin continued to grapple over their future.

But what happens in Moscow is only half the story. The Russian provinces - whole regions, often bigger than large European countries - have taken on a life of their own.

In some areas, a parallel battle to the one in Moscow is being fought. Presidential appointees are fighting with regional councils, elected in the Communist era. Mr Yeltsin is keen to keep them in line. Among his announcements on Saturday night was the sacking of local governors in the Siberian cities of Irkutsk and Novosibirsk. Vitaly Mukha, governor of Novosibirsk, has described his dismissal as a violation of his 'rights as a people's deputy'.

Mr Yeltsin has now announced a 'certification' process of regional governors which will, in effect, determine the loyalty of these presidential appointees, ensuring that they do not side with the regional councils which, like the central parliament, tend to be more conservative than the President and his allies.

In practice, neither President Yeltsin (with his emphasis on fast- track reforms) nor the Communist- era parliament (with its emphasis on slow-track or no-track reforms) may be able to crack the political whip in all the remote and scattered corners of the country.

In former times, the regional authorities - Communist Party secretaries from the backwoods - were seen as the most reactionary forces of all. Now, the opposite is sometimes the case. In cities such as Nizhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky, the closed city where Andrei Sakharov spent several years in exile), privatisation has taken off, with the encouragement of a radical local administration. Almost half the retail trade in the city has been privatised, under the patronage of an energetic young governor, who has close political links to President Yeltsin. A number of cities have offered explicit support to the President, in recent days, but others have spoken against him.

In Kemerovo, one of the most important mining regions of western Siberia, the local council sided with the Russian parliament by voting to disobey Mr Yeltsin's decrees, pending a final judgment by the constitutional court. But miners in Kemerovo were reported yesterday to have threatened to go on strike in Mr Yeltsin's support.

If the picture is confused and mixed within the Russian regions, there is a clear reluctance to side with Mr Yeltsin among the many autonomous republics and regions within the Russian federation, each with its own ethnic problems and independence demands. Areas like Tatarstan, which has officially declared itself to be independent from Russia, are glad to see Mr Yeltsin humiliated, and are unlikely to show enthusiasm for the referendum the President wants the regions to organise.

In the ethnic regions of the Russian federation, too, the mood is not so much pro-parliament as anti-Yeltsin, and a lack of interest in what Moscow has to say. A Reuters news agency correspondent in Tuva, close to the Mongolian border, reported a Tuvan minister as insisting that none of the local leadership would support Mr Yeltsin, saying: 'This is dictatorship, and nobody needs it.' Tuva only became part of the Soviet Union in 1944. A local television announcer told Reuters: 'We have our local leaders, and we are more interested in what they have to say than Yeltsin.'

When the Soviet Union was a single, one-party state, it did not matter which part of the country you were in: you knew that you would always hear an identical party line. But, with the collapse both of the Union and of political uniformity, the diversity of opinion and style seems certain to grow, whatever happens in Moscow.

In many respects, the port of Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, is now more concerned with developments in neighbouring Asian countries - where trade is flourishing - than with Moscow, which can barely control the nearest parts of European Russia, let alone its most distant regions. The regions have, in other words, gained a momentum - positive or negative - of their own.