Conflicting appointments signal gridlock in Soviet politics

April 09, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Vyacheslav S. Komissarov, duly appointed as Moscow's police chief by both the City Council and the Russian Federation Ministry of Internal Affairs, showed up yesterday at 10 a.m. sharp for his first day on the job.

But the Moscow police, Mr. Komissarov's would-be subordinates, wouldn't let him in to police headquarters.

"We have our orders," a semi-apologetic captain told him at the gate.

Their orders, they said, came from the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Two weeks ago Mr. Gorbachev had named a Moscow police chief -- his Moscow police chief -- Ivan F. Shilov.

For good measure, the Soviet president ordered the entire police department removed from the city's control and subordinated directly to the central government. The Russian Federation parliament subsequently canceled that decision, declaring it unconstitutional.

The tragicomic Ping-Pong match for the leadership of the police force in this crime-plagued capital of 10 million people is in its third month, with no sign of resolution in sight.

While Washington's example shows the complexity of the problem of home rule in a federal capital, the police chief story is a fair sample of the gridlock prevailing in Soviet politics today.

Elected local and Russian Federation leaders find their way blocked by Mr. Gorbachev's central government on the most fundamental of matters, from access to television to distribution of farmland.

Mr. Komissarov, at the insistence of city officials, eventually was permitted inside the stately, yellow-hued police headquarters, known by its address as Petrovka 38. But there he was told only that Mr. Gorbachev had no intention of changing his mind and that he might as well look for other work.

Outside, a few dozen angry City Council supporters shouted at the befuddled policemen guarding the gate.

"This discredits the idea of the [Soviet] Union," fumed Anatoly B. Cherepanov, an activist and co-chairman of one of several opposition groups taking the name Democratic Party. "What kind of sovereignty does Russia have if the legal authorities can't even name a police chief?"

Later yesterday, the City Council leadership began debating whether to establish a new police force with Mr. Komissarov at its head and invite Moscow policemen to quit the old force and join the new one. They also discussed a proposal to ask the Russian Federation to stop funding the existing police force and to cut electricity and water supplies to its headquarters.

Mr. Gorbachev repeatedly asserts his authority over Moscow and the rest of Russia in the name of law and order.

But instead of law and order, the result is a chaos Russians metaphorically refer to as kasha, from the buckwheat mush that is a traditional staple.

In this case, there are 17 city council members on a hunger strike -- some in their 20th day -- to protest Mr. Gorbachev's action. There are hundreds of adults in important jobs in the Soviet, Russian and Moscow governments who spend their days trying to outwit one another and uphold the priority of their police chief.

And there are thousands of ordinary Moscow cops, struggling with youth gangs, organized crime, drunken brawls, embezzlement and murders on nearly an American scale, who aren't sure who their boss is.

The police so far seem to be consistently obeying Mr. Gorbachev's orders and ignoring the City Council and Russian Federation. Many privately say they prefer the policies of Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin and Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov to those of Mr. Gorbachev, but they know who controls the Communist Party, the army and the KGB.

But now the situation potentially could grow dangerous. If the new "Moscow Municipal Militia" really begins to take shape, the police force could split into hostile factions, one loyal to the city and the other to the Kremlin.

"From this moment, the conflict clearly is taking on acute, dramatic and unforeseeable character because of the stubbornness on purely political grounds" of the Soviet leadership, said Deputy Mayor Sergei B. Stankevich as he left Petrovka 38 with no promise of a resolution.

In its grand-scale standoff with Mr. Gorbachev's government, the Russian Federation and local leadership has usually lost on specific issues while winning more and more popular support. But the current coal miners' strike, now in its sixth week, may be turning that support into the one powerful weapon the opposition can wield with effect.

Most of the roughly 300,000 striking miners back Mr. Yeltsin in his running battle with Mr. Gorbachev. Their walkout is shutting many industrial plants, and the Kremlin cannot stop the strike with military force.

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