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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Struggle in Moscow Reflected in the Urals

CHELYABINSK, Russia - In his office, with its long table and full-length map of this heavily industrialized region in the Ural Mountains, a besieged Governor Vadim Solovyov paces nervously and explains why quick, radical reform is the only possible course.


"This is the mighty struggle. This may be the last chance", said Solovyov. "The faster we get to the water, the sooner we learn how to swim".


But a few blocks away, in an office that also has a long table and a full-length map of the region, Pyotr Sumin, the governor's rival, sits calmly and explains why the whole process needs to be slowed down.


"It is impossible to change people's psychology in a year or two'", said Sumin, the leader of the Regional Soviet, wearing a gray suit with a red pin on his lapel marking him also as a deputy to the People's Congress. "Russia already had a bad experience with quick reforms, for example, collectivization".


The debate here between the executive and legislative branches, over fast reform versus slow reform, mirrors the escalating national conflict between the executive and legislative branches in Moscow, namely between President Boris Yeltsin and the conservative parliament headed by speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.


The conflict centers on the pace of reforms, but it also incorporates the division of power between different branches of government and the political ambitions of their leaders.


And just as in Moscow, the issue is coming to a head here.


The regional soviet, the legislature for the oblast, has called gubernatorial elections for April 11, the same day as the scheduled national constitutional referendum. Solovyov calls the elections unconstitutional and has appealed to Moscow to halt them.


"They don't have power any more. This is why they want elections", Solovyov said of the regional soviet. "I have to prove to them it is illegal and that I am the lawful head of the region".


Solovyov says such elections have been called in more than 15 regions around the country as conservative regional Soviets challenge more reform-minded governors.


"The regional Soviets blame the heads of administrations for doing too good a job in giving life to the orders of President Yeltsin", he said.


Boris Kirshin, chief editor of the local paper, Chelyabinsky Rabochy, said the conservative deputies returned "activized" from the December Congress of People's Deputies, in which they successfully defeated Yeltsin's pro-reform choice for Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar.


The city of Chelyabinsk lies on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. From the air the small mountains seem dwarfed by the city's smokestacks and their huge plumes of smoke that spread over several kilometers.


The region of about 4 million people, which straddles the Eurasian divide, is among the most heavily dependent on the defense industry. It was here, in the Urals, where Stalin moved his defense industry to keep it out of the reach of the advancing German armies.


Top-secret factories in the cities - not even on the governor's map - produce nuclear weapons. Others manufacture missiles and specialty steels used in airplanes and submarines. The region is also home to the sprawling Magnitogorsk steel plant.


The factories have been scrambling to diversify, privatize and attract foreign investors to combat the production slump that has ravaged much of Russian industry.


Solovyov said the 16 percent production decline in the region in 1992 was 3 percentage points better than Russia as a whole. and while Russia has privatized only a small percentage of all its businesses, the governor said 80 percent of the region's firms have been sold in one form or another.


Solovyov said he understands that some of these factories will have to close and others will lay off workers, but he said those are problems the region must face.


"One shouldn't be scared", he said. "We will find ways to get people employed".


But problems like unemployment are exactly the type of social pains Sumin's policies are trying to avoid. His policies echo those of the powerful political lobby. Civic Union, which thinks reforms should proceed more slowly.


"Privatization is not a remedy to all Russia's problems", Sumin said. "It's only an illusion that it will make things better".


The process should be done "step-by-step", he said. Regarding the most pressing privatization issue - what to do with the largest state enterprises - Sumin again echoes the Civic Union line: "Privatization of big plants should be thoroughly thought over. As we think this over, state support of such enterprises is necessary".


Solovyov has nothing but contempt for the concept of slow reform.


He explains: "Let's say I go to the doctor and they tell me to get up on a table and they stick a needle in me. Then they ask me if it hurts and I say yes. Then they take the needle out part of the way. It still hurts".


Another ideological issue brewing here, also one at the heart of politics throughout the country, concerns the sending of revenue from the regions to the federal government. Last summer, the regional soviet in Chelyabinsk voted not to send revenues back to Moscow. Its efforts resulted in an 8 billion ruble subsidy coming from Moscow back to the region.


The Russian parliament last month approved a special, experimental law for the region, allowing it to keep 90 percent of the revenues from privatization and for the region's ministries to hold 50 percent of the shares of newly privatized companies, Sumin said.


The measure was passed over the objections of Solovyov, who said now that the region keeps the money, it will be forced to pay for services it cannot afford.


The region is one of Russia's most polluted, having suffered three devastating nuclear accidents since the 1950s on a par with Chernobyl.


Already, Solovyov said the region lacks the money for a project to clean up a lake whose radiation level is so high it is said that a man could die on the spot if he swam in it for an hour.


According to Kirshin, the newspaper editor, the animus between the two-government leaders goes back to Soviet days, when Sumin was the leader of the oblast and Solovyov was just the first secretary of the Communist Party in the city of Chelyabinsk.


"People think it's all just ambition", Kirshin said. "All these old politicians can do nothing new in our region. They are good in business, let them be in business".


Solovyov said he believes the division of power issues will be resolved soon, but he gave an ominous warning about the escalation of the conflict and appeared to be referring to the possibility that Yeltsin would impose presidential rule.


"I don't like to say that the president would be pushed to more decisive actions", he said. "But if need be, I will support it".