Wild bunch keep red flag flying in Ufa: In Russia's biggest republic, Andrew Higgins finds Communists fighting Yeltsin with local autonomy demands

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THEY were a wretched bunch - a stone-deaf pensioner, a snarling witch of a woman with a black scarf, a skinny youth with wild, frizzy hair, and a dozen other cranks and zealots who, galvanised by a brief announcement on the front page of the Ufa Evening News, had trudged through the snow to the local recreation centre to curse Boris Yeltsin and his plans for a new constitution.

The occasion, a small political landmark for the Republic of Bashkortostan and Russia as a whole, was the rebirth of PolitKlub, a weekly discussion group run by the local chapter of a reconstituted and resurgent Communist Party.

A 59-year-old electrician kicked off the meeting with what, in the circumstances, was taken as good news: a study by American academics postulating that standards of living worldwide could only get worse. 'This shows capitalism has no future,' said Granit Zinvrov. 'I suggest we find a way to publish this so that people can know what is really happening.'

What type of people sacrifice an entire evening to rejoice at the triumph of communism? People probably not too different from the few brave, often quirky souls who used to gather, sometimes in the same third-floor room, to cheer Boris Yeltsin when the tables were turned and Communists still ruled the roost, which in Ufa means a large concrete building atop the only hill in this vast, filthy city 1,200km (750 miles) east of Moscow.

Leading the discussion was Valentin Likitin, a hard-working activist in a badly-cut Soviet suit and Communist Party candidate for the State Duma, the lower house in Russia's new legislature, in elections on 12 December. He is expected to get a seat. 'Let's not dramatise the situation,' he assured his motley audience, their knees jammed beneath wooden desks. 'There is still a chance people will reject the constitution. We have some allies. We will go among the masses. We will also get on television. People are beginning to see the real face of this dictatorship.'

The minutiae of Russia's constitutional debate might seem light years away from the concerns of most ordinary people but, in Ufa and perhaps even for Russia as a whole, it is an issue that probably matters more than the make-up of the new parliament or the government that will then be formed.

Fear of what voters might do when, in addition to selecting new MPs, they pass judgement on Mr Yeltsin's tailor-made constitution has already sent the Kremlin into a panic. So sensitive is Mr Yeltsin himself that last week he banned all discussion of the text during political broadcasts on national television. Sergei Shakrai, a former presidential adviser who now heads his own political bloc, warns Russia will fall apart if the text is not adopted.

There is deep and disturbing irony in all this. In August 1990, it was Boris Yeltsin, then still a maverick and in desperate need of allies against Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to Ufa with this intoxicating message: 'Take as much power as you yourselves can swallow.' It was an extraordinary invitation to Russia's 21 republics to shed their timid ways and demand real power to match the hollow 'sovereignty' promised by the Soviet constitution.

His audience, gathered outside the building where the Communist Party discussion group met last week, loved it. They gave Mr Yeltsin a thunderous ovation and, as a souvenir of this particular triumph that subversive summer, a hand-made flute inscribed with his name as a gift.

The flute never left town. Mr Yeltsin forgot it - and would soon forget the seductive pledges of power-sharing that went with it. It now collects dust on a bookshelf in the office of Zufar Yenikeyev, a member of the local parliament, one of those who cheered Mr Yeltsin in 1990 and one of those now campaigning to derail the Kremlin's constitution.

'Maybe Yeltsin was a bit tipsy back then,' he suggests. More unkind is the alternative - that he knew exactly what he was doing. 'He needed our support in his fight for power. Now that he is at the top he can forget all the things he said before.'

Encouraged by Mr Yeltsin's words, Bashkiria - the oldest of Russia's republics and biggest with four million people - renamed itself Bashkortostan and demanded a lion's share of revenues from oil, timber and other natural resources on its territory. Mr Yenikeyev began writing a local charter to enshrine this new status. It defines Bashkortostan as a 'sovereign democratic state'. The constitution Mr Yeltsin wants approved on 12 December takes a very different stand. It defines all of Russia's 89 constituent parts as 'equal subjects of the Russian Federation'. It deletes any mention of sovereignty for Bashkortostan or any of the other Russian republics.

The cause of local autonomy, Mr Yeltsin's battering ram against Mikhail Gorbachev, has been taken over by his opponents. In a referendum in April, 75 per cent of voters endorsed 'economic autonomy' while only 39 per cent expressed confidence in Mr Yeltsin.

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