Washington, June 11 (RFE/RL) -- The 25 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics are playing an important role in the Russian elections, as a symbol of Russia's decline, as a source of votes and finally as a potential foreign policy lever for whoever is elected Russian president.
All the candidates in the Russian presidential elections have voiced their concern for the fate of the roughly 25 million ethnic Russians who remain in the 14 former Soviet republics. Some, such as Boris Yeltsin, have suggested that Moscow must make protection of their fate a centerpiece of Russian foreign policy.
Others, like communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have suggested that the ethnic Russians living abroad are one of the most important reasons for and means to the restoration of a Moscow-centered superstate, either as a revived Soviet Union or as a new Russian empire.
And still a third group, such as reformer Grigoriy Yavlinsky, have warned that exploitation of the issue of ethnic Russians living abroad could have negative consequences for Russia itself.
But if the 25 million number is an important symbol, there is another sense in which the ethnic Russians living abroad are playing a role in the Russian presidential vote.
Although they are now overwhelmingly citizens of other countries, just under 250,000 are in fact citizens of the Russian Federation and thus entitled to take part in the election. Most of these -- some 180,000 -- are situated in just two countries, Estonia and Latvia, with the rest scattered throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union. And overwhelmingly, polls in Estonia at least suggest, these people will be voting for either Zyuganov or Zhirinovsky. And news reports from Ukraine suggest that Russian citizens there are likely to do the same.
If those poll results hold up, they will have a number of consequences for these Russian citizens abroad, their host countries, and for Russia itself.
For these Russian citizens abroad, such a vote will necessarily exacerbate relations between themselves and their neighbors. Such a worsening of inter-ethnic relations in turn could lead to more ethnic Russian outmigration from these countries, to more ethnic Russians choosing to take Russian citizenship, or conversely to more ethnic Russians deciding to accept the current situation.
For the countries in which these Russian voters live, a massive pro-nationalist or pro-communist vote by Russian citizens will inevitably cause many in these states to become even more suspicious of Russian citizens and ethnic Russians more generally.
And for Russia itself, such a vote could have two ultimately completely different consequences. On the one hand, if Russian citizens living abroad vote for Zyuganov and he wins, a Russian President Zyuganov will almost certainly be even more inclined to press their case.
On the other, if Russian citizens living abroad vote for Zyuganov but Yeltsin wins, he won't owe them anything in narrow political terms and thus may be less inclined to rely on them to advance Russia's interests in the former Soviet space.
In that event, a pro-Zyuganov vote by Russians living abroad could could have a result both unintended and unexpected. It could mean that Moscow might begin to pursue a more normal, even conventional foreign policy toward its neighbors.
That is not to say that Moscow will adopt a softer line. Indeed, almost everyone in the former Soviet space expects Russian rhetoric and policy toward them to be tougher than it has been.
Rather it is to suggest that the "Russian question" in these countries will be transformed -- and transformed in a way that may allow everyone concerned to build a better and more stable future.