MOSCOW — The epicenter of Russia's political crisis shifted Thursday to an ethnic backwater 300 miles southeast of Moscow, where local lawmakers unilaterally abolished the job of the democratically elected president.
For Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, himself in uncertain political straits, the implications of the action by the legislature in Mordovia, a semiautonomous republic within the Russian Federation, were alarmingly evident.
He sent his top legal and minority affairs expert, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei M. Shakhrai, to the scene and signed a decree ordering that the deposed leader, Vasily Guslyannikov, be kept in office pending a judicial review.
Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, the tussle for power in the Volga valley region of central Russia with fewer than 1 million inhabitants replicated in miniature the feud that has raged here in the capital between Yeltsin and the legislative branch.
Last month, the Russian Congress of People's Deputies failed by only 72 votes to oust Yeltsin from office. Now, largely the same scenarios have been applied in Mordovia--but with more success.
The respected newspaper Izvestia said the origin of the conflict is the inability of local Communist lawmakers to coexist peacefully with Guslyannikov, who--like Yeltsin--trounced them and their candidate at the polls.
By a two-thirds vote, the chairman of the republic's Supreme Soviet, Nikolai V. Biryukov, led the lawmakers in the city of Saransk last Saturday in abolishing his old rival's office.
Guslyannikov, who beat out Biryukov with 56% of the vote in elections in December, 1991, was given three months' severance pay.
"The deputies have the right to make changes and amendments to the constitution of the Mordovian Soviet Socialist Republic," Biryukov said.
But Yeltsin and his entourage reacted energetically, since the legitimacy of the executive branch has now suffered an unprecedented challenge. Shakhrai told the legislators in Saransk on Thursday that they had violated both their constitution and that of Russia.
"The people should decide everything," Shakhrai said. "If the president has not merited their trust, then obviously the people should have the possibility to remove him from power by a constitutional route."
In his decree, Yeltsin asserted that all local presidents in Russia's semiautonomous republics are "part and parcel" of the executive branch that he heads. Under his order, Guslyannikov is supposed to remain in office until Russia's Constitutional Court rules on the legality of the Mordovian Supreme Soviet's actions.
In the superheated political climate leading up to the April 25 nationwide referendum on citizen support for Yeltsin's presidency, the import of winning the dispute in Russia's hinterlands was clear.
"The Mordovian republic is now being used as a testing ground for political scenarios that include deposing of the heads of executive power," Shakhrai said.
Significantly, two heavy guns of the anti-Yeltsin bloc in the national Parliament, Sergei N. Baburin and Vladimir B. Isakov, have gone to Saransk. Russian Deputy Pyotr S. Filippov, a leader of the Radical Democratic Party, flatly accused Yeltsin's main rival, Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, of masterminding events there.
Yeltsin's entourage was obviously worried that the strategy used in Mordovia could be applied in the score of other semiautonomous republics throughout Russia, where the old Communist nomenklatura is still firmly in control of the elected councils.
In any event, it was a rare moment in the spotlight for Mordovia, a land slightly smaller than Belgium whose inhabitants, originally pagans who worshiped birch trees and spoke a language related to Finnish, are now Russified and Christianized. They farm wheat, rye and barley and make industrial goods ranging from machine tools to building materials.
In another political development Thursday, Yeltsin signed another decree naming Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a key political ally, to head a new government commission responsible for organizing the April 25 referendum. That gambit appeared designed to minimize the influence of the Congress on preparations and the actual voting.