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Russia: Governors Proving To Be Unpredictable Political Force

By Sophie Lambroschini Sophie Lambroschini

Last weekend's election in Sverdlovsk highlights the growing political unpredictability of Russia's regions. Our correspondent in Moscow looks at attempts to organize the regions ahead of December's parliamentary elections.

Moscow, 31 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sunday's regional election in Sverdlovsk highlights the growing influence of regions in Russian politics and shows how unpredictable those politics can be.

It's no surprise that Eduard Rossel, one of Russia's best-known governors after promoting an independent Urals republic in 1993, won the vote and now stands a good chance of winning elections in next month's run-off.

What's surprising, though, was the relatively poor showing of Yekaterinburg mayor Arkady Chernetsky. In spite of being supported by the powerful "Our Fatherland-Russia" alliance, Chernetsky came in just third.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Fund, says support from Moscow-based parties isn't enough to guarantee victory in regional elections. He tells RFE/RL that "more and more, the regions are evolving according to a separate logic, where ideology doesn't play much of a role." He says increasingly voters are looking to regional leaders as "do-ers" -- as opposed to Moscow politicians, who just talk.

Regional expert Jean-Robert with the French Foundation for Political Sciences says voters see what works around them: schools, transport, etc. when they make a decision. These things, he says, are more dependent on local authorities. He says that voters also see that pensions aren't paid on time - and that's a federal job.

As December's parliamentary elections approach, politicians at all levels, including the Kremlin, are looking at how best to organize themselves for victory -- while taking into consideration the unpredictability of regional voting.

Two political alliances have been formed. Our correspondent reports that the effort has had mixed results so far.

Tatarstan president Mintimer Shaimiyev's "All Russia" union boasts the most impressive list, with Saint Petersburg mayor Vladimir Yakovlev, Ingush president Ruslan Aushev, and leaders from Bashkortostan and the Primorsky region lined up.

"All Russia" recently hooked up with Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's "Our Fatherland" grouping when it became clear that former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov would support the union. The alliance is widely predicted to do well in the parliamentary election.

A rival group hasn't fared as well. Samara governor Konstantin Titov's "Voice of Russia," reportedly encouraged by the Kremlin, has fallen to pieces.

According to Russian media reports, former prime minister Sergei Stepashin's last tour in the Volga region a few days before his sacking and new prime minister Vladimir Putin's trip to Siberia shortly after taking office were last-ditch efforts by the Kremlin to convince governors to support Kremlin-backed candidates.

The Russian daily Nezavissimaya Gazeta says governors are looking beyond the Yeltsin era. They want a presidential candidate who can guarantee their powers and independence. But since no Moscow candidate supports regional independence, the governors have decided to choose candidates on their own.

Russia's regional leaders first asserted themselves last April when the upper house Federation Council (which groups governors and heads of regional legislative assemblies) twice refused to dismiss General Prosecutor Yuri Skuratov as ordered by the Kremlin.

After the vote, Alexander Lebed famously announced that the independent stance had led to the "collapse" of presidential power.

Such a slap in the Kremlin's face would have been unthinkable a year earlier. The upper house, comprised of many Yeltsin appointees, was conceived as a counter-weight to the unruly opposition Duma.

Raviot says the growing independence of the Federation Council is explained by the fact that governors are not appointed anymore but must be elected. Also, he says, it has taken the governors some time to define their powers and policies -- many of which conflict with the center.

Last year's economic crisis may have also propelled the governors toward more autonomous positions. Caught in a financial and political turmoil, the center transferred many federal powers de facto to the governors. Several regions like Kreasnoyarsk and Krasnodar then experimented with highly interventionist methods to stabilize their economies.

Analysts note that the main lesson that Moscow political parties and the Kremlin should remember when lobbying regional leaders is their overwhelmingly pragmatic approach. Oksana Oeretcheva at the East-West Institute's Moscow branch says that governors will make political decisions while disregarding ideology.

She says the main tactic of governors is to gain influence for their regions in the Duma. They are trying to be present whatever the outcome by spreading out the risks. In Sverdlovsk, the governor runs as an independent and the Yekaterinburg mayor as a Luzhkov ally. That way in December, the region is bound not to lose.