The Russian Referendum: Viewing the world through Russia's window on the West: A united St Petersburg is forging ahead to overcome its Communist legacies, reports Helen Womack

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The Independent Online
'YES to the President or our hopes are at an end,' says the headline on the front page of the Nevsky Times lying in the office of Yuri Vdovin. Am I seeing straight? The newspaper is the organ of the St Petersburg 'soviet', or council, of which Mr Vdovin is a deputy. This is the local equivalent of the parliament in Moscow, the side which is supposed to be resisting the executive branch of government and the drive for reform.

But this is St Petersburg, Russia's traditional 'window on the West'. Here the deputies are not only co-operating on the whole with their liberal mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, but backing Boris Yeltsin in tomorrow's national referendum. Compared with the fruitlessness of Moscow politics, the sense of common purpose in Russia's former capital is wonderfully refreshing.

It is hard to believe that Mr Vdovin, the chairman of the council's committee on press freedom, is a deputy. The typical 'people's representative' in Moscow is a cynical, self-satisfied former Communist Party hack, grey as an ash-tray, dogmatic and desperate to cling to power. Mr Vdovin, 55, still sharing a communal flat with eight other families as he has done all his life, was never a Communist. A lover of jazz, this former engineer is civilised, intelligent and committed to improving the lives of his constituents.

He and his fellow democrats, who make up the majority of the St Petersburg council in contrast to other provincial cities where former Communists dominate, make one feel that there might after all be hope for Russia.

The council and the mayor, who now operates from the Smolny Institute, the former aristocratic girls' academy which was for decades the seat of Communist power in Leningrad, do clash sometimes, which Mr Vdovin says is inevitable, given the lack of democratic traditions here. Power struggles have broken out between Mr Sobchak and the deputies which Mr Vdovin says remind him of the Russian children's riddle: 'Who is stronger, the whale or the elephant?'

But the level of debate is higher than elsewhere in Russia, partly because after the deputies were elected in 1990 they attended classes in law and politics. Also, St Petersburg has found a mechanism for dealing with disagreements over jurisdiction and so avoided the kind of paralysing bickering between Mr Yeltsin and his rival, the parliamentary chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Whenever Mr Sobchak and the deputies fail to agree, they go to the city court which adjudicates between them. Says Mr Vdovin: 'Sometimes the mayor wins, sometimes we win. Either way, we accept the decision and then get back to the job of reform which is the common goal.'

Concrete results are already visible on St Petersburg's rapidly changing face. Some 80 per cent of small enterprises are in private hands and the main Nevsky Prospekt is alive with cafes, bars, fashion boutiques and food shops stocked with imported produce. True, the bananas and chocolate bars and leather jackets and hi-fi systems are often prohibitively expensive for local people struggling to make ends meet on an average monthly salary of 20,000 roubles (just over pounds 16).

And true, behind the refurbished facades of the elegant avenue lie acres of some of the worst slums in the former Soviet Union. But a start has been made and people already have an idea of what a free-market economy could be like.

'It's really swish,' says Sasha of the old Evropeiskaya Hotel, now modernised with Swedish help and catering to the Nordic and German businessmen who are flocking here to trade. Sasha, a student who dreams of opening a small guest house herself one day, cannot even afford a beer in the bar of the Grand Hotel Europe, as it is now called, but she admires rather than resents the developments.

Not everyone shares this attitude. Last week demonstrators, nostalgic for the equality, albeit at a low standard of living, which they felt Communism guaranteed, marched past the hotel, shouting: 'Down with the foreign occupiers.' They were offended that elderly Russians had to beg on the street yards from where rich Westerners enjoyed caviar and champagne.

Certainly the contrasts in today's St Petersburg are striking whatever your political point of view. Partly using the proceeds from the sale of state property, the city has been able to spend 1.2bn roubles (pounds 1m) on social welfare to cushion the effects of the reforms. But many residents, especially pensioners, invalids and large families, remain poor while a relatively small group of 'yuppies' are getting seriously rich.

The population of St Petersburg used to be among the wealthiest in the former Soviet Union because so many people worked in the arts or in the defence industry, both prestigious and at that time well-paying sectors. But culture and the military have been badly hit by reduced state spending and St Petersburg now has a greater proportion than other Russian cities of people struggling on frozen incomes, although unemployment has yet to become a significant problem.

While privatisation of shops and workshops has progressed at a much faster pace than anywhere else in Russia with the possible exception of the capitalist enclave of Nizhny Novgorod, the privatisation of big state factories and conversion of military plants to civilian work is going more slowly. 'There are no objections from the deputies,' said the deputy mayor, Alexei Kudrin. 'But we are meeting resistance from the older generation of bureaucrats.'

For the future, St Petersburg has ambitious plans. Mr Kudrin, only 32 and a friend of the ousted young Russian reformist prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, says special industrial zones are to be set up around the city, giving tax breaks to foreign firms which move in. He is full of praise for the British Know- How Fund which he says has been of great help to St Petersburg. The go-ahead has been given for a regional development agency here. There are plans to turn the Vasiliev Island area of the city into the equivalent of Docklands in London or La Defence in Paris.

Reform in St Petersburg has almost reached the point where it is irreversible even if Boris Yeltsin falls. Mr Kudrin and Mr Vdovin said the city would be watching the referendum anxiously because continuing political stalemate in Moscow would hold back St Petersburg's progress to some extent. But the city is determined not to be a hostage to the mess in Russia's centre. Said Mr Vdovin: 'If there is a bad result for the President and Moscow puts the brake on reform, St Petersburg and I think other places like Nizhny Novgorod will just press on with what they are doing.'

In St Petersburg, there is even a fifth question on the referendum ballot paper: 'Do you want our city to have the status of an autonomous republic?' The question does not have binding force but if enough people answer 'yes' it will indicate to the authorities that there is a popular mood to go it alone.

This could be the future trend in the Russian Federation which some specialists believe is simply too vast to be governable as a single unit. Different regions could develop at the paces which suit them, regardless of the antics of the politicians in Moscow.

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