Reformers press their advantage in Russian city ruled by hard-liners

October 12, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

VORONEZH, Russia -- Local Communists like to call this a Red City, but the democrats have seized on Boris N. Yeltsin's victory to press their advantage as far as they can.

Reformers sense an opportunity that may never come again to break the hold of the hard-liners on the politics and economy of Voronezh.

Here, as in cities across Russia, President Yeltsin's allies are determined to capitalize on his success in smashing the parliamentary rebellion.

"We must take advantage of the moment," said Boris Kuznetsov, local chairman of the Republican Party. "And we must do it quickly."

"We always hear the cliche, 'Don't get involved in a witch hunt,' " said Igor Zhilin, a former member of Parliament. "We can't think that way anymore. It's not a question of revenge. People who broke the law should be held responsible."

And the reformers' opponents -- a collection of Communists and nationalists who two weeks ago were almost beyond challenge here -- are on the defensive now.

As the 12-day standoff between the president and the defiant leaders of parliament wore on, they had been feeling their strength. Throughout the country, the regions were restive, threatening to break free of Moscow's control. Local soviets, or councils, voted to resist presidential decrees. Tax revolts and rail blockades were proposed.

The tanks put an end to that kind of talk.

Voronezh is a city of a little more than a million residents. It is in a conservative, die-hard part of the country.

The head of the district soviet is Ivan Shabanov, a top Communist Party leader. It was Mr. Shabanov who during the standoff invited Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Parliament's speaker, to abandon Moscow and set up his alternative government in the more friendly environs of Voronezh.

The manager of the biggest factory here, the state-owned Voronezh Mechanical Plant, is Georgi Kostin, a board member of the extremist, and now banned, National Salvation Front.

Last week, Mr. Yeltsin's local representative, Viktor Davydkin, launched a campaign to have Mr. Shabanov ousted, Mr. Kostin fired and his factory privatized.

"My No. 1 task is to get rid of Kostin," said Mr. Davydkin. "He's using state money that's supposed to be for the plant to fight the president. He's a dictator over there. The place is like a concentration camp."

Mr. Kostin was out of town last week, but Mr. Shabanov had come back from Moscow, where he had been cheering on the parliamentary forces, and was trying to figure out what to do.

Adding to the mix, Mr. Yeltsin late last week dissolved all city and village councils and set rules for the new regional councils to be elected in the near future.

There could be resistance to the decree in some parts of Russia, but in Red Voronezh, at least, the mood was one of resignation -- of putting aside the fight until another day.

"There's nothing we can do about it," Mr. Shabanov said. "We're not going to turn this building into another White House [as the now charred parliament building in Moscow is known]. But how can you talk about free and fair elections in these conditions? Newspapers are banned. Political groups are banned. TV presents only one side.

"We can't call people out onto the streets. Well, it will take time, but some day certain forces will make Yeltsin answerable for his mistakes."

The Communists' main strategy at the moment is to try to separate themselves from the extremists who brought out the guns in Moscow.

There are several different branches of communism in Russia, said Ruslan Gostev, regional leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and that it is unfair to lump them all together.

Mr. Gostev, a casual man with a big open face and a winning

smile, said he's against violence and extremism. "Now is the time for thinking," he said. "It's too early to say what we will do or can do. Anything we do could be taken right now as a move against the government. Of course, Yeltsin is moving fast, but if we do something rash we could do ourselves a lot of damage."

It's not that the Communists were unpopular here. The $l democrats have had a very hard time penetrating the state farms in the countryside, which are not unlike plantations in the way they are run. Farm and factory bosses controlled much of what people learned of the outside world, and told them whom to support.

In April's referendum, Mr. Yeltsin won approval from a respectable 49.7 percent of those voting in the Voronezh oblast, or district, but his economic policies garnered a 53 percent "nyet" vote.

On both issues he did significantly worse than in Russia as a whole.

Today, though, the mood on the streets of Voronezh seems to fall into two distinct categories: those who admire Alexander Rutskoi, the former vice president now in jail, but believe he was tragically misled, and those who rejoice in his downfall.

It is as though the people, too, have recognized Mr. Yeltsin's power, and have adjusted their views to fit.

No one spoke of resistance, peaceful or otherwise.

For two years, under the hard-liners' leadership, Voronezh resisted economic reform. But it was a rear-guard fight, and it was failing even before the climax in Moscow.

The market here, for instance, is groaning with meat, vegetables and fruit. Bananas from Ecuador and olive oil from Greece are stacked on the counters. All this is in stark contrast to the bare bones of 1991.

But even more remarkably, prices in the city market have now fallen below those in the stores -- a situation that prevails in most of the world, but has made people dizzy here. For years, stores sold food at heavily subsidized prices, while at the markets excess produce went for whatever the seller could get.

Now the subsidies have been withdrawn, and prices reflect both costs and demand. Shoppers are stunned at the thought, but it shows that reforms are taking hold.

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