Democracy Gets Test in Largest Soviet Republic


With simmering tempers and much arguing, Russians embarked Wednesday on a struggle to create an institution unprecedented in their republic’s long and tumultuous political history: a democratic legislature with real power.

By a single vote, the new Russian Congress of People’s Deputies showed its mettle by rejecting an agenda that deputies complained was being forced on them by the Soviet leadership. They said it was designed to lead to the swift approval of a Kremlin apparatchik as the republic’s president.

From a balcony, Mikhail S. Gorbachev impassively surveyed the unruly and novel institution he helped to found, one that may deal him a political body blow by making Boris N. Yeltsin, the strapping Siberian populist, the new leader of the Russian federation instead.

“This is a huge victory for democratic forces,” a member of the radical Democratic Russia group exclaimed after the agenda, seen as damaging to Yeltsin’s chances, was rejected 495 to 494.


The Congress, the new Parliament for the largest of the Soviet republics and the heartland of the Soviet Union, ironically held its inaugural session in the same Kremlin hall used by the old rubber-stamp national legislature. Its proceedings were carried live on radio.

Except for the locale, dominated by a statue of Lenin striding confidently forward, little seemed the same.

A lawmaker from the Volga valley put his finger on the difference: “Now the fundamental question is power.”

Another, exasperated by the haggling over procedure that began almost immediately from the floor, said: “This is not a congress; I don’t know what it is. I called home, and they told me the meeting was out of order.”

Despite containing over half of the Soviet population and three-quarters of its land, the Russian republic has long been a political pygmy in the country’s governmental system, which in theory is composed of 15 republics equal in rights though vastly different in size and economic might.

Although ethnic Russians dominate Soviet politics, the civil service and most other fields of endeavor, the continent-sized land they live in has been virtually under direct rule by the national governmental apparatus and the dozens of Soviet ministries.

“Russia has no rights. It follows the lead of the center; it has no policies of its own, foreign or domestic,” Yeltsin told a rally Monday as he openly campaigned for the Russian presidency.

Many Russians, echoing Americans’ complaints about foreign aid, believe wealth is being siphoned from their homeland to bolster the lifestyles of ungrateful peoples. According to Tass, the official news agency, the central government distributes 61% of the profits it collects from Russian enterprises to the non-Russian republics.

“It’s time the central government stopped biting pieces off Russia,” said Yeltsin, who wants an office of nationwide importance to push his demands for more drastic social and economic change.

Gorbachev’s reforms have resulted in demands for local autonomy and even independence, and Russia is no exception. Across its 11 time zones, anger at the bureaucrats in Moscow has reached such a pitch that some people talk openly, if unrealistically, about Russia seceding from the Soviet Union.

For many, the test of the new Congress’ independence will be whether it elects the 59-year-old Yeltsin as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, or Russian president.

The incumbent, Politburo member Vitaly I. Vorotnikov, 64, is not being mentioned as a candidate, and Communist Party members say the squeeze has been put on by the national leadership to choose Alexander V. Vlasov, currently the republic’s prime minister and a career party and government official.

Pravda, the party daily, gave splashy play this month to an interview with the normally low-profile Vlasov, which the gadfly Moscow News said clearly tagged the 58-year-old native of the Lake Baikal region of Siberia as the “official candidate.”

Yeltsin, who was dumped by Gorbachev as Moscow party boss in 1987 but scored a stunning political comeback by winning election to the national Parliament, has accused Gorbachev of putting pressure on deputies to vote for Vlasov.

Easily elected to the Russian Congress in March from his home region of Sverdlovsk in the Urals, Yeltsin claims that one-third of the chamber’s 1,068 members are pledged to him. He may have more, judging by the Congress’ decision on the first day of its session to reject the agenda calling for immediate election of a president. A quick vote was seen as giving Vlasov an distinct edge.

Now, Vlasov will be obliged to give an accounting of his three-year tenure as Russian prime minister and to explain current economic difficulties. That is likely to open him up to tough criticism. However, a Yeltsin victory in the secret-ballot election still appears a long shot.

Prominent radical Tatyana Koryagina, who like the towering Siberian has made a political career out of her attacks on official perks and privileges, garnered more than 400 votes Wednesday in her bid to win election to the Credentials Commission of the Parliament, but ultimately failed. That bodes poorly for Yeltsin.

A powerful legislative branch is hardly in the political traditions of this land where the czars long ruled as they saw fit, and where Lenin could speak contemptuously of “parliamentary cretinism.”

A key reason that Soviet rulers politically emasculated the Russian federation was the longtime fear that its institutions, if allowed any autonomy, could become alternate power bases to the national bureaucracy.

For example, though it has far more Communists than any other republic, Russia for decades was without its own party apparatus, unlike the Ukraine or Armenia, for example.

Significantly, when Gorbachev, already Soviet president and general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, created a separate “Russian bureau,” he made himself its chief as well.

OFFER TO MOSCOW--Lithuania said it would suspend secession laws to get talks. A7


The Russian Republic, formally known as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, was formed in 1917 and joined the Soviet Union in 1922. It is by far the largest and most populous of the republics, extending from the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean in the north to China and Mongolia in the south, and to the Pacific Ocean in the east.

AREA: 6.5 million square milees.

POPULATION: 145 million.

ETHNIC BREAKDOWN: 82.6% Russian; 3.8 Tatar; 2.7 Ukrainian; 1.2% Chuvash. There are about 100 other nationalities in the republic.