Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Moscow's Crisis

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 9 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Political gridlock in Moscow is prompting ever more of Russia's far-flung regions to make decisions on their own, a pattern likely to prove far more significant than any decision taken in the Russian capital.

There are three reasons for what may appear to be a rather sweeping conclusion:

First of all, this effective decentralization of power will make it even more difficult for anyone in Moscow to regain authority for the central government anytime soon.

In the last several days alone, Kaliningrad governor Leonid Gorbenko has declared "an emergency situation." Sverdlovsk governor Eduard Rossel has announced a 17-point anti-crisis program. And Krasnoyarsk governor Aleksandr Lebed has introduced price controls.

Any effort to reimpose central control over such regional officials will inevitably spark increasing resistance among leaders and regions who now have had the experience of making their own decisions.

Second, the increasing diversity of decisions by regional leaders will make it even more of a challenge for the central government to devise any single policy for the entire country.

The diversity among the regions is even greater than their difference with Moscow. Some regional leaders such as Arkhangelsk governor Nikolai Malakov are seeking to use market forces to ration increasingly scarce goods.

But many others, including Omsk governor Leonid Polezhayev, have turned to the administrative measures of the past, imposing price controls and sanctions against those who violate them.

And consequently, even if the Moscow government can decide on any approach, it is likely to find itself in a bind similar to the one that confronted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

If Moscow tries to impose a common solution on the very different regions, it is likely to generate resistance. But if it tries to craft a policy that takes into account these differences, it is likely to radicalize some regions which may seek to gain the benefits others are receiving.

And third, both the decentralization and differentiation of the Russian Federation will force Western investors and even Western governments to deal with the regions individually even if they want to see Moscow's power and authority restored.

While most Western governments and investors continue to focus on the Russian capital, there are indications that at least some of them may now be looking to the regions as a guide for their own decisions.

One indication of that possibility took place on Tuesday. Speaking in St. Petersburg, a German investment official said that Moscow might remain "the key to Russian problems" but that decisions by regional leaders could determine the investment climate in their areas.

Dieter Schubert, the director of the House of German Economics, added that foreign investors had been frightened away by the collapse of Moscow's credibility but that St. Petersburg leaders could regain it for their region through independent actions on their own.

While Schubert reiterated that much will depend on what happens in Moscow, his statement is the clearest indication yet that investors and the governments behind them are prepared to look beyond the Russian capital even as they hope the leaders in Moscow will recover.

To a remarkable extent, all three of these developments recall what happened to the Soviet Union in 1991. But there are some important differences which suggest this analogy may not prove to be exact.

Some of these suggest that Moscow may be able to regain control of the situation. Among them are Western opposition to any division of control over that country's nuclear arsenal, the unhappy experience of many former republics, and the power of Russian national identity. But other differences from the Soviet model suggest that the current pattern of decay of political authority in the Russian Federation may have even more far-reaching consequences.

These factors include the inability of local leaders to build authority for themselves, the absence of control structures, and the ever deeper split between those relatively well-off regions who pay more in taxes than they receive and those who hope to consume this surplus.

Which of these forces proves to be the more important remains to be seen, but they seem certain to play a major role in redefining the Russian Federation regardless of what decisions are taken by the Russian government or the Russian parliament in the next days and weeks.