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Analysis From Washington -- More Than A Capital City

Washington, May 15 (RFE/RL) -- Two news reports this week highlight both a change and a challenge to politics as usual in the former communist bloc states.

In the Russian Federation, the largest of these countries, President Boris Yeltsin is now campaigning in the provinces and, at least for electoral purposes, is paying attention to the interests of populations and elites in Russia's farflung regions.

Meanwhile, in Estonia, among the smallest of such countries, President Lennart Meri, also with an eye to the upcoming presidential vote in his country, is spending the week in Estonia's university city of Tartu. And according to his press spokesman, he is governing the country from there.

Neither of these reports would be remarkable in Western countries, but in the post-Soviet states, they represent a major shift in the way political life is conducted.

Under communism, all power was concentrated in the capital cities. The center made virtually all the decisions for the regions. Those who wanted to participate in political life thus sought to go to the capitals as quickly as possible, and those who remained on the periphery were often little more than agents of the center.

That arrangement contributed to a sense of omnipotence on the part of central governments and a sense of powerlessness and irresponsibility on the part of regional officials.

It also made a shift toward democracy more difficult.

As the Estonian example demonstrates, this problem is more than about shear size. While seldom commented upon, the need to decentralize political authority is something that all the former communist countries must meet if these states are to institutionalize democracy.

But it is worth noting that the enormous Russian Federation suffers from an additional burden that compounds this problem.

Throughout Russian history -- in tsarist times, in Soviet times, and to a certain extent even now -- Russians have typically viewed the relationship between the center and the periphery as a zero sum game. That is, they have felt that if either the center or the periphery gains in power, the other loses.

Or to put it more bluntly, the regions have viewed any gain in power by the center as a step towards hypercentralization, and the capital has conceived any gain in power by the regions as raising the spectre of secession.

As a result, and especially in times of political transitions or decay, many of the things that local governments can do more effectively than central ones are blocked by the central authorities, and many of the things that only central governments can do are blocked by the regions.

Apparently, the only way that such attitudes can be overcome is through the electoral process -- whether inherited from the communist past as in Estonia or from that past and more distant history as in Russia.

Clearly, neither of these presidents nor their colleagues in the other countries of the region would be attending to the regions as much as they now are were it not for the power of voters, the overwhelming majority of whom live outside the capital cities.

A single election, of course, will not be sufficient to guarantee this mental shift. But the elections in this region represent an important start.

But a shift from thinking about politics in the capital to politics in a country will be among the most important contributions of this round of voting, be it in the giant Russian Federation or the much smaller Estonia.