Yeltsin puts block on breakaway provinces: President looks to regional leaders for support in 'decisive battle' with parliament over elections

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin, who came to the Kremlin promising Russia's regions 'as much power as you can swallow', yesterday said he would never allow any part of the country to secede and vowed to stop Russia from fragmenting like the Soviet Union.

Russia, he told regional leaders in the northern city of Petrozavodsk, was indivisible: 'We do not have the right to break it, either moral or historical or legal. We cannot do this to our descendents and future generations.'

At the same time, he called on his audience of local bosses to help him in his power struggle with parliament, inviting them to form a new 'organ of power' that he suggested might act as some form of a parallel legislature. Local barons responded coolly to the proposal, opting instead to establish a Federation Council as a largely toothless consultative body.

Mr Yeltsin's attempt to rally support from leaders of 20 semi- autonomous republics and some 60 other territories follows an ultimatum to parliament in Moscow on Wednesday. Trumpeting a 'decisive battle' ahead, Mr Yeltsin said he was determined to force parliamentary elections this autumn - two years ahead of schedule - with or without the consent of legislators. Under the terms of a revised 1978 constitution still in force, however, the president has no legal right to dissolve parliament and fix elections. Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies, warned that Mr Yeltsin may be preparing to use force.

The appeal for help to Russia's provinces repeats the strategy Mr Yeltsin adopted in his long battle for power with Mikhail Gorbachev when the Soviet Union was still intact. In August 1990, while Mr Gorbachev struggled to cobble together an emergency economic plan, Mr Yeltsin travelled extensively across Russia, promising to help local leaders shake free of Moscow's smothering economic and political grip.

President Yeltsin still regards regional leaders as a sympathetic constituency. They dominated a hand-picked assembly summoned to the Kremlin two months ago to produce a new draft constitution which, if ever adopted into law, would turn Russian into a strong presidential republic similar to France and sharply reduce the powers of an overhauled parliament.

Yesterday, Mr Yeltsin said the Constitutional Conference would reconvene next month to work out ways of enacting the draft, which is opposed by parliament.

But Mr Yeltsin, like Mr Gorbachev before him, must now wrestle with the centrifugal forces that critics say he has done most to aggravate. There are also other leaders competing for the favour of regions. Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Mr Yeltsin's former ally turned bitter rival, has himself embarked on a lengthy swing through the provinces to drum up support.

'I have to say that if any republics or regions really have hopes of leaving Russia then they are deeply mistaken,' declared Mr Yeltsin yesterday. 'Russia will remain a unified force . . . There is no such thing as absolute sovereignty.'

Absent from the Petrozavodsk conference was Chechnya, a republic in the north Caucasus which has declared full independence and forced back Russian troops sent to return it to the federation. Moscow still insists the region is part of Russia. Since moving into the Kremlin, Mr Yeltsin has warned frequently about the perils of political fragmentation, but yesterday's speech marked the clearest declaration that no further secession would be tolerated. But as the case in Chechnya shows, such a policy is far easier to declare than enforce.

Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, described separatist feelings among some republics as 'geopolitical nonsense'. Tatarstan has declared itself a sovereign state in association with Russia. Other regions have also seen some stirring of separatist sentiment. Demands for full independence, though are so far relatively muted.

The economic collapse of former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, and the violent turmoil convulsing others, such as Georgia, has had a sobering effect. Most regions now want tax- breaks and economic privileges not independence. 'Russia is not like a slice of Swiss cheese,' said Mr Kostikov 'It is an integral, monolithic state.'