KAZSAN, RUSSIA — KAZAN, Russia -- A subtle, dicey and possibly devastating round of sparring began here yesterday, in the capital of the world's newest sovereign state, a historic city that is a muddy, fanciful, decrepit amalgam of East and West.
Tatarstan, by voting for sovereignty over the weekend, has set in motion a contest of wills that will have consequences for all of Russia. It is a contest complicated by the number of players uneasily eyeing one another.
Once there were only Tatars, the northernmost Muslim people, who ran everything. But in 1552 Ivan the Terrible extended Moscow's rule to the banks of the Volga River, and the Russians built a Kremlin here and plenty of fine houses, and made sure all the Tatars lived down the hill below the canal.
Tsars gave way to Communists, wooden filigree and high plaster moldings gave way to modern crumbling concrete and cracked glass, Communists in turn gave way to their successors, and today Tatar nationalism is very much on the ascendancy.
So at first glance it is a question of the Tatars' yearning to be masters of their own land against Moscow's desire to retain its control.
But Moscow is in the hands of liberal reformers, so a lot of old-line Communists (including ethnic Russians) have suddenly discovered the virtues of nationalism, if nationalism means keeping reform at bay.
President Mintimer Shaimiev, for instance, used to be general secretary of the Communist Party here, a post he gave up when he ran -- unopposed -- for the presidency. Last August he happily supported the plotters of the attempted coup by unreconstructed Communists against Mikhail S. Gorbachev and last winter he happily supported sovereignty for Tatarstan -- freedom, that is, from the government of Boris N. Yeltsin.
Yesterday he promised that economic reform here will "be long and slow. Just because we have become a sovereign republic, it doesn't mean we'll destroy the structures we have."
Under his rule, hammers and sickles still abound in Kazan. Reminders of Lenin, who spent three months at the university here before being kicked out, are everywhere.
But while Tatar activists, who faced persecution under the Communists, warily watch their new and powerful ally, Mr. Yeltsin's democratic supporters have troublesome comrades of their own, who might be described as Russia-firsters.
"It was stupid," Aleksandr Knyazev, a retired army man, said yesterday of the vote. His family has lived in Kazan for many generations, he said, and they always counted themselves as Russians.
"This was a country. And now it's just a collection of fragments," he said. "Russia itself will break up. Nothing good will come of this."
On Sunday, when the results of the referendum had come in, a group of Tatars danced for joy outside the parliament building. That evening, a small but defiant band waving the Russian flag paraded down one of the gloppy streets of Kazan, where the potholes are huge and mud and ice contend for primacy like primordial predatory creatures, just as they must have done through centuries of Russian rule.
This is different from the old republics breaking away from the Soviet Union that held them together. Tatarstan, with a population of 3.6 million, is the second largest "autonomous republic" within the Russian Federation itself, one of 31 special districts based on ethnic population. It is rich in minerals, a major producer of oil and trucks, and is taken much more seriously by Russians than Chechen-Ingushetia, a minor republic in the Caucasus that noisily proclaimed its sovereignty last winter.
If Mr. Yeltsin does nothing to keep Tatarstan in line, Russian nationalists fear that other ethnic areas will follow suit, and Russia itself will founder. This leads Russian democrats to fear that the nationalists will try to seize power in Moscow, either because of ethnic unrest or in anticipation of it.
The Tatarstan parliament ignored Mr. Yeltsin's request to cancel Saturday's referendum. On Sunday evening, Gennady Burbulis, Russia's first deputy prime minister, said on television: "We cannot allow ourselves to be indifferent to what is known as the territorial integrity of Russia."
But Mr. Yeltsin clumsily mishandled the Chechens by trying to act tough, and then retreating, and all of Tatarstan is waiting to see what happens in the case of this place.
"A lot of it depends on the subtlety -- or lack of it -- in the Russian government," said Yuri Alaev, editor of Izvestia Tatarstana.
The first move, though, may come in Kazan. President Shaimiev said yesterday that he would like to have a bilateral treaty with Russia ready to be signed by April. Russia will have to negotiate, he said, because of Tatarstan's economic importance.
He insisted that he has no plans for a separation from Russia, merely a new relationship of "equals." Extreme Tatar nationalists dismiss that out of hand, though, and demand an independent nation.
That's just what Vladimir Belaev, head of a group of pro-Russian legislators, believes is behind the vaguely worded sovereignty referendum.
"If it doesn't mean secession," he demanded, "what's the point of it?"