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Yeltsin Orders Elections for Regional Councils : Russia: The decree turns out thousand of Soviet-era lawmakers and their costly perks.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Boris N. Yeltsin broadened the campaign against his foes in Russia’s heartland Friday by ordering new legislative elections in 68 of 88 territorial subdivisions by the end of March.

The decree, issued late in the day without official comment, will turn out thousands of Soviet-era lawmakers and their costly perks.

Each new legislature will be limited to 50 members; many of the huge, unwieldy councils now in place have hundreds of members apiece.

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Yeltsin also moved to limit local autonomy from Moscow in the draft of a new constitution to replace the one in force when the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991.

The territorial legislatures are among the last remnants of Soviet power and have been bastions of legal opposition to the president’s free-market reforms.

Many supported the conservative national Parliament that Yeltsin shut down Sept. 21 and then shelled with army tanks Oct. 4 to put down those who resisted.

In the wake of that bloody showdown, Yeltsin urged legislatures outside Moscow to dissolve themselves and face elections Dec. 12, when a new national Parliament is to be chosen.

As of this week, three had stopped work voluntarily; another 17, including the Moscow City Council, have been shut down by Yeltsin’s local appointees.

Facing resistance, Yeltsin appeared to lose patience last week, declaring on television: “The time of Soviet power is coming to an end.”

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Friday’s decree stopped short of disbanding the rest of the holdout legislatures and gave them an extra three months’ leeway to schedule regional parliamentary elections.

Yet its impact is sweeping. It will broaden the competition in Russia’s first round of elections since the Soviet era, requiring fledgling parties already pressed by the short notice before the federal voting to come up with thousands of new candidates for regional races.

Yeltsin’s new government party, Russia’s Choice, has a formidable edge in the contest, with its state backing, influence over the media and candidates with high-visibility Cabinet posts.

Still, the outcome is far from certain.

This week, Yeltsin issued another decree allowing the Russian Communist Party and some other hard-line opposition groups to run in the election. Until then, nearly all the parties approved for participation were strongly pro-Yeltsin or supported the thrust of his reforms.

In an interview Thursday with New Daily Gazette, a Russian newspaper, the president promised: “All parties and movements officially registered with the Central Election Commission will enjoy equal guarantees in conducting their election campaign.”

Friday’s decree mandates legislative elections in Russia’s 66 regions and its two federal cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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It does not require elections in the 20 ethnic republics, the most powerful and restive of the Russian Federation’s 88 “subjects,” or territorial subdivisions.

The distinction is critical. Under the Soviet constitution, the ethnic republics got more autonomy on paper than the other subjects, although in practice all were tightly ruled from Moscow.

When the Soviet Union broke up, many republics began pushing for real autonomy. One, Chechnya, has practically pulled out of the federation; it is not taking part in the federal elections.

During debate on a new constitution last summer, the republics defeated an attempt by Yeltsin’s drafters to declare all 88 subjects equal.

The most assertive was Tatarstan, an oil-rich republic on the Volga River, which has adopted its own constitution, taken full control of its budget and, for a few months this year, withheld taxes from Moscow.

Tuva, a republic on the Mongolian border, adopted its own constitution Friday.

With a Yeltsin-appointed Constitutional Assembly set to resume work on the issue today, the president’s drafting team tried again Friday to equalize the 88 subjects by deleting a reference to the republics’ “sovereignty.”

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Sergei A. Filatov, Yeltsin’s chief of staff, told reporters that the term sovereignty was “a confusing formula” with “unpredictable consequences.”

Although the practical consequences of the change are unclear, the move is certain to provoke a storm at today’s assembly meeting, which includes delegates from the republics.

Yeltsin’s advisers apparently told him that ordering new elections in the republics would be going too far and might risk moves for outright secession.

Friday’s decree only “recommends” that the republics “carry out a reform of state bodies” in line with the president’s orders elsewhere.

“Most of the republics are strong enough to be more or less independent from the center,” said Andrei I. Treivish, a regional specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The movement toward independence may become overwhelming, and this is what Yeltsin fears most. He prefers a bad peace to a good war.”

Friday’s decree clearly limited the powers of the regions and federal cities. Their laws can be nullified by federal decree if they are judged to contradict federal laws.

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It also curtails what were once the enormous powers of regional legislatures by reducing their terms from four years to two and giving regional executives, most of whom are appointed by Yeltsin, the right to manage property and make economic policy.

But lawmakers can still override executive vetoes by a two-thirds majority vote.

Andrei Ostroukh, of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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