Young Russian maverick aims to build capitalist paradise: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is offering his tiny republic of Kalmykia as a testing ground for sweeping reform, writes Andrew Higgins in Elista

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The Independent Online
The revolution was over in time for lunch. It ended with a flutter of red voting cards raised in unanimous assent, a round of applause from the floor and a parade of shy young girls offering fresh carnations to plump, middle-aged men - and one woman - as a reward for their zealous obedience.

The President, a 30-year-old self- made rouble billionaire with a penchant for silk ties and silky promises, declared the day's deed historic, proclaimed a new capitalist dawn, hailed the Republic of Kalmykia as a model for the rest of Russia and invited everyone to the Melody Cafe for a feast.

The entire drama took less than three hours. It cost not a drop of blood and stirred barely a whimper of dissent.

And so, on the shores of the Caspian Sea last Friday, did President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, after less than three weeks on the job, set a precedent Boris Yeltsin would dearly love to see copied in Moscow: he cajoled and bribed the local parliament into mass political suicide.

'We have had a revolution, a quiet revolution,' enthused the President's chief of staff, Gennady Amninov.

With no votes against and only two abstentions - and even these were probably due to a miscount - 105 people's deputies raised pieces of red card to endorse their extinction. In a single morning, they abolished their jobs in the Supreme Soviet, disbanded district soviets (or councils) in towns across Kalmykia, and set up a 25-member commission to draft a new constitution. The new constitution will greatly expand the President's authority and fix rules for elections to a new, streamlined legislature.

'We have taken a historic step,' announced President Ilyumzhinov on the edge of Lenin Square, still named in honour of the author of the pre-eminent Bolshevik slogan - 'all power to the soviets' - that had been rejected with rather unnerving Bolshevik discipline only a few minutes before, inside the parliament building. 'We have become the first place in Russia to free ourselves of the soviets. It is a great day.'

If only Boris Yeltsin could be so lucky. He would like nothing better than to do away with the Congress of People's Deputies, the Russian legislature that has made his life misery for much of the past year. Mr Ilyumzhinov is eager to give advice. He visited Moscow last week and briefed Mr Yeltsin on his bold plans for Kalmykia, offering his republic of 320,000 people as a testing ground for sweeping reform.

The events in the Kalmykian capital of Elista, however, will not be easily repeated in Moscow, 1,150kms (715 miles) away to the north. For one thing, Kalmykia is tiny: sheep outnumber people nearly nine to one. Its main industry is wool, though it does have some oil. Populated by a mix of Russians and Kalmyks - a vestige of the Mongol-Tatar empire - Kalmykia is merely one of nearly 90 administrative units that make up the sprawling, fractured entity known as the Russian Federation. The Kalmykian Supreme Soviet had only 125 members. The Congress, representing all Russia, has more than a thousand.

President Ilyumzhinov - like Mr Yeltsin - portrays people's deputies as an obstructionist remnant of the Communist order. They do represent old-thinking. But the ease with which he persuaded them to sign their own death warrants shows theirs is not the aggressive conservatism of the Moscow Congress but the passive one of men imbued with the most inviolable principle of Communism - obedience.

The next item on Mr Ilyumzhinov's agenda is to create a zone of unfettered capitalism and deliver on an election promise to turn Kalmykia into a 'second Kuwait'. He wants to shrink the bureaucracy by cutting the number of ministries from 25 to five. Among those to go is the Security Ministry, though local secret policemen seem in no mood to give up their four-storey headquarters in the centre of Elista.

While insisting Kalmykia must stay part of Russia, he woos nationalists with a pledge to seize full economic independence. The republic, he says, will refuse subsidies from Moscow, which now account for about 90 per cent of the budget.

'I am not a politician,' explained the President. 'I am not a Communist. I am not a democrat. I am a capitalist. I want to raise the standard of living.' It was this theme - and a campaign promise to give families dollars 100 ( pounds 64) - that won him a landslide victory in presidential polls in April. He got 65 per cent of the vote. His rival, a deputy commander of Russian ground forces, won 29 per cent.

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