President's man fights to stay in driving seat: Andrew Higgins in Voronezh sees a local version of the Moscow battle

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VIKTOR DAVYDKIN has a Volga sedan with official number plates, an office in the former Communist Party headquarters on Lenin Square and an impressive title: 'Representative of the President of the Russian Federation.'

That, though, is about all he has. And, if the enemies that lurk on all sides of his fifth-floor office get their way, he will soon lose even the pretence of what is supposed to be a formidable authority. No matter what promises President Boris Yeltsin may bring back from the Vancouver summit, they will be of little help to his man in Veronezh, a bleak concrete city 400 miles south of Moscow. It is probably too late for that.

A nuclear physicist by profession, Mr Davydkin is the President's proconsul in Voronezh, one of scores of zealous reformers appointed after the August 1991 coup to enforce change in 49 regions and assorted other administrative areas scattered across Russia's 11 time zones.

On paper - a presidential decree he keeps under a sheet of perspex on his desk - Mr Davydkin's powers are immense. Among them are control over tax authorities, security forces and other state bodies. But another piece of paper - a resolution passed by the Congress of People's Deputies a week ago - says his job no longer exists. The whole network of presidential envoys, ruled the Congress, must go.

But like most bits of paper produced by the endless struggle for power in Moscow, neither the decree empowering Mr Davydkin nor the Congress document sacking him mean very much.

What matters in Voronezh is the far more immediate battle in the regional administration building. If Mr Yeltsin has trouble making his voice heard beyond the walls of the Kremlin, Mr Davydkin has trouble asserting his authority as far as the corridor. 'Not everyone here opposes me,' he says, gesturing towards the door, beyond which work the regional Soviet (or council) and hundreds of local bureaucrats, nearly all of them left over from the Soviet era. 'No, not everyone, just most of them.'

Their hostility is implacable. 'This whole system of presidential representatives is unacceptable,' says Ivan Shabanov, a former Communist Party boss who now heads the regional Soviet. 'I feel as if someone is constantly peeking through the keyhole. It is humiliating. The President doesn't trust us.'

And with good reason. On the wall of his vast pannelled office overlooking a statue of Lenin in the main square, Mr Shabanov keeps a large portrait of Lenin: 'We should respect the first leader of Russia.' He has nothing but contempt for its current leader. 'We do not support him and we do not support his economic policies. How can we support something that has only made the people suffer.' He used to keep quiet about his loyalties, fearing he might be purged for failing to oppose the August 1991 coup when he was party secretary. Now he boasts about them: 'I am a Communist.'

Moscow's power struggle has paralysed decision-making. In Voronezh, though, decisions are being taken - most of them by Mr Shabanov and Alexander Kovelev, a former factory manager who serves as governor. Privatisation has been put on hold. Companies that want to take their products out of the Voronezh region must get licences. Subsidies have been increased to keep the price of milk, bread and other basic commodities lower than the national level. There is little Mr Davydkin can do.

He lists his supporters: a secretary, three assistants and a handful of volunteers. 'I would like to hire more staff but I'm afraid of offering any permanent jobs. I can't guarantee what might happen tomorrow.'

The best hope, both for himself and Mr Yeltsin, he says, is a national referendum on 25 April. He does not think it will produce a clear-cut result but it will at least give Mr Yeltsin an opportunity to bypass Congress deputies elected under Communism in Moscow and local bureaucrats such as Mr Shabanov who have spent their life serving Communism in Voronezh.

And how Mr Yeltsin fares will depend to a large extent on whether Mr Davydkin and other presidential representatives can get out the vote. The best he can hope for, though, is more muddle. But even this is better than the alternative: 'They will be flying the red flag in front of this building if Mr Yeltsin loses.'