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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Federalism By Default

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to dismiss a regional governor and thus reassert central power over the country's farflung regions appear to have backfired.

A month ago, Yeltsin decreed that Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, the duly elected governor of the Russian Far East, should be removed from office because of Nazdratenko's refusal to obey orders from Moscow.

At that time, the Russian president indicated that he was seeking to send a message to all regional leaders who were pursuing an independent line.

"I know there are a lot of bosses who got big powers," Yeltsin said. "They think they are far away from Moscow, and there will be no control over them. They are wrong."

But a month later, Nazdratenko is still in office. And last week, following a unanimous vote in his favor by the Russian Parliament's upper house, Nazdratenko told journalists that "beyond any doubt, it is I who has the power, just as I had before."

On the one hand, this episode reflects only a personal struggle between a Moscow leader and a regional one who has regularly snubbed his nose at the center.

But at another and more fundamental one, it highlights the continuing weakness of Moscow and the growing strength of the country's regional institutions and elites.

Some observers both in Russia and abroad have seen this development as a prelude to secession by one or another of the country's 89 regions. Others have argued that it is the surest way for the Russian Federation to become a genuine federal state.

But the nature of the center's current weakness and the region's current strengths suggest that Russia's future is likely to fall somewhere in between complete disintegration and genuine federalism.

There are three reasons for Moscow's current weakness. First, the Russian government has lost its former levers of control - the Communist Party, the secret police and the army - without having yet been able to put new democratic ones in their place.

Second, precisely because the center had so much power in the past, Moscow faces deep suspicion from the regions whenever it attempts to act against them.

Indeed, one of Nazdratenko's opponents in Vladivostok said last week that Yeltsin's attack on the governor had strengthened rather than weakened that official.

And third, Moscow itself is divided, a situation that allows the regions to play off one part of the center against another. If Yeltsin opposes the Nazdratenkos of the world, other Russian officials clearly see him as a potential ally.

Similarly, there are three reasons for the new strength of the regions. First, most regional governors are now elected rather than appointed and thus have a natural legitimacy at the local level.

Second, regional leaders like Nazdratenko face fewer constraints on their power locally. They dominate the press, and they often actively repress any opposition.

Moreover, they are helped in this autocratic direction by the fact that Moscow allows them to allocate the financial resources sent from the center.

And third, the governors often are able to form close ties to powerful regional business interests and even to military commanders on their territory.

This combination of central weakness and regional strength is likely to prove unstable over the longer term, but just how it will be resolved remains to be seen.

Given the Russian tradition of a unitary state, at least some in Moscow may try to take back all the power the center has lost over the last decade. But any efforts to do so could have serious consequences.

The regions are as the Nazdratenko case shows in a position to resist. And the center would likely have to invoke a foreign threat to overcome that. Both of these developments would hinder Russia's moves toward democracy and economic development.

Consequently, both Moscow and the regions have a common interest in reaching an agreement on a division of power that would leave both in a stronger position.

But as the war of words between Yeltsin and Nazdratenko over the past month shows, both central leaders and regional ones still see center-periphery relations as something where a victory by one is necessarily a defeat by the other.

Until both Moscow and the regions overcome that longstanding attitude, Russia as a whole will have relatively few chances to become a prosperous and genuinely federal state.