Mordovia, in 'small example,' abolishes presidency as key vote on Yeltsin nears

April 22, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

SARANSK, Russia -- Here in Mordovia, 300 miles east of Moscow, the legislature has accomplished what the national parliament has unsuccessfully shouted, schemed and lusted over for months.

Blaming the republic's president for the moribund economy, the Supreme Soviet of Mordovia has simply abolished the presidency. Russia's president, Boris N. Yeltsin, who has been fighting off a similar assault on his own job, can only watch uneasily and hope that events here will not foreshadow those in the nation at large.

"They couldn't pull it off with Yeltsin," said Alexei Novikov, editor of the Saransk News, "but here they've done it perfectly."

Mordovia's president is determined not to let his counterpart down. If Russia goes the way of Mordovia, he wants it to go the right way -- with presidency intact.

"I'll try to resist," Vasily Guslyannikov, a cheerful former physicist, said in an interview. "So far, I still have my telephone."

Mr. Yeltsin faces a nationwide vote of confidence Sunday that is expected to reveal whether Russia wants a strong presidential system or a strong parliamentary system, a march toward economic reform or a step back toward the past.

Like the national legislature, local legislatures across Russia tend to be dominated by conservatives entrenched in the old bureaucracy who want to keep power and property in their control.

At the same time, the executive branches have been filled by new politicians eager, like Mr. Yeltsin, to rush into painful market reforms that have drastically lowered the standard of living.

As if emboldened by the parliamentary attack on Mr. Yeltsin last month, parliaments such as that of Mordovia, a region of 1 million people that became an autonomous republic with extra legislative powers in 1930, are taking up the fight before the referendum.

"We're a small example of what's happening there," Mr. Guslyannikov said, sighing. "If the Russian parliament is against something, they're against it here."

In Mordovia, one of 16 autonomous republics in Russia, the charge against the presidency is led by Nikolai Biryukov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Mordovian Soviet Socialist Republic and former agriculture secretary in the communist system.

"For a year and a half, this presidential system has not lived up to the expectations of the people," Mr. Biryukov said, sitting in his office under a large portrait of Lenin. "The situation in the republic has turned for the worse economically, socially and politically. The main reason is that the president is free to do anything he wishes and is completely uncontrolled."

And, Mr. Biryukov said, "he always emphasizes in doing whatever he wants that he was elected by the people, as if that gives him the right."

Mr. Guslyannikov sees the problem differently. "People want to live in a new society, in a new world without their standard of living getting worse," he said.

That is reflected in the political winds. When the Communist Party was permitted recently to register anew, 5,000 of the former 50,000 members in Mordovia signed up. Mr. Guslyannikov's Democratic Russia movement has 300 members.

Mr. Biryukov denies that what is going on is political. He says that Mr. Guslyannikov is not only corrupt but inept, that the Supreme Soviet had no choice but to get rid of him.

"Do you want us to put him in jail?" Mr. Biryukov asks. "It's enough to give a moral assessment of his activities and remove him from his post."

Mr. Novikov, the newspaper editor, said no one has produced any proof that Mr. Guslyannikov is corrupt. "It's simple," he said. "Biryukov doesn't like Guslyannikov, so he decided to get rid of the whole post."

The president said the legislature was not troubled by a constitutional ban on such changes without presidential approval. "There are lawyers in the Supreme Soviet who want to use their education to prove white is black," he said.

While Mr. Biryukov marshals his anti-president forces in the low-rise, salmon-colored House of Soviets, Mr. Guslyannikov sits just across a large, barren square, organizing his defense in his eighth-floor office in the former Communist Party headquarters, now known as the Mordovian White House. He sits beneath a Russian flag.

When the legislature voted this month to abolish his job, Mr. Guslyannikov appealed to Mr. Yeltsin for help. The Russian president ordered the parliament to reinstate the president, pending a decision by the Russian Constitutional Court.

Mr. Biryukov promptly had Mr. Guslyannikov's desk in the House of Soviets moved out. He also ordered the president's telephone and electricity cut off, but it turned out that the heads of the utilities answered to Moscow.

"They got proper instructions from Moscow," the president said, "and promised not to cut it off."

The legislature appointed a prime minister, Valery Shvetsov, to form a parallel government that plans to take over the president's duties.

"They can elect a prime minister," Mr. Guslyannikov said, "but they won't be able to run the government."

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