Russia's Regions Emerge as Key Power Brokers Leaders in Hinterlands Weigh Their Options: Leave the Troubled Federation or Stick with It

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THE question for many here is not who will win the vicious power struggle between the Russian president and his conservative enemies in parliament. It is: Will be the struggle cause the Russian Federation to disintegrate?

The leaders of the regions and the ethnic republics that make up the vast Russian Federation emerged as an independent and increasingly powerful force at the special session of the Congress of Peoples Deputies that wrapped up over the weekend.

For some of them, the seemingly endless scramble for authority behind the Kremlin walls shows that the central government is dysfunctional, and that the federation is probably doomed.

"If Russia is breaking up then there is one question that I must ask: `Why do we have to go down together with it?,' " says Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, the parliament chairman of the Tuva Autonomous Republic, a region about 3,000 miles east of Moscow along the Mongolian border.

Mr. Bicheldei says Tuva may schedule a referendum April 11 on "leaving the Russian Federation." An "absolute majority of the population" would support such a proposal, he says.

Other regional leaders are not looking to jump ship just yet but are exasperated at the inability of those involved in the Moscow power struggle to put their differences aside for the good of the federation.

"The most important issue today is the perfection of relations within the federation in order not to slip into a Yugoslav ... scenario," says Viktor Stepanov, parliament head of the Karelian Autonomous Republic, an ethnic homeland bordering Finland.

Though many are pessimistic, not all regional leaders are convinced events in Moscow will lead to the breakup of Russia. Valentin Fyodorov, the governor of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, is confident Yeltsin will win the struggle for power and preserve the federation.

"Executive power," Mr. Fyodorov says, "it is a quasi-dictatorship, it always represents order, whereas the parliament stands for disintegration."

Russia is a federation composed of 21 ethnically determined regions along with largely Russian-populated areas such as in Siberia and the Far East. Already two autonomous republics - Tatarstan in the Volga region and Chechenya in the northern Caucasus - are agitating for independence. Several more threaten to follow suit.

The danger of separatism is being exacerbated, some observers say, by the attempts of both Mr. Yeltsin and parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, the president's bitter rival, to drag the regions and autonomous republics into the fray. …