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Russia: Gubernatorial Elections Are A Sleeping Giant

St. Petersburg, 11 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's regional gubernatorial elections often are billed as the latest battleground between the communists and the Kremlin, and of late the Kremlin seems to be winning.

The results of the first five elections provide cause for Kremlin optimism. Three of these elections -- in Rostov, Volgoda and Saratov -- resulted in victories for the pro-Moscow appointed incumbents.

But a replay of the ideological communist-versus-reform confrontations of the presidential elections hasn't occurred. The regional elections are developing as referendums on local conditions and on the performance of the incumbent governors.

The communists, despite their strong grassroots network in the regions, have tended to support centrist, non-ideological candidates with the best chances of winning. Thus, the Kremlin seems to be having it both ways. When the Moscow-supported candidate wins, the administration can claim victory. Communist-backed, but centrist, candidates are likely, in the end, to be reasonably cooperative with the Kremlin.

Still, the newly-elected governors could become a problem for the Kremlin. The real significance of these elections in the long term may be that they will have laid the foundation for prolonged conflict between the federal center and regional executives.

All of Russia's 89 regions and republics must by law be governed by elected executives by the end of this year. Accordingly, the 52 regions that still have appointed executives have scheduled elections for this fall and winter. So far, five of them have chosen their elected governors. Two have second round, runoff elections pending. And 45 more are slated to conduct polls by the end of December.

The regional races have not received the same intensive media scrutiny as have previous Russian elections. But they're a sleeping giant, potentially significant for the country's political future.

In line with Russia's tradition of strong executives, regional governors exercise broad power within their regions. Furthermore, Russia's governors also function as senators. Regional executives and the heads of regional legislatures automatically become deputies in the Federation Council, the powerful upper house of the Russian parliament.

The council wields the right to approve or reject a presidential declaration of a state of emergency; exercises control over the deployment of the Russian armed forces abroad; holds the authority to ratify treaties and confirm presidential nominees to the Constitutional Court; and is empowered to remove the president from office following impeachment. The Federation Council also must approve the federal budget, financial, currency and customs regulations, and declarations of war and peace.

A council filled with elected regional leaders, could tip the balance of power in the capital dramatically, transforming the upper house into something resembling the U.S. Senate. With a fresh democratic mandate, the newly elected governors can be expected to assert their regions' interests versus Moscow's.

The governors received their broad influence due to political battles between Moscow and the regions prior to the passage of the Russian Constitution in 1993. In a deal that was comfortable for both sides, the governors were given a forum -- the Federation Council -- as well as extensive powers in their regions, in exchange for an end to secessionist designs and support for the passage of the constitution.

Russia's last two big elections were one-day, made-for-television affairs. Conversely, the 52 gubernatorial elections are scheduled for scattered dates throughout the fall and winter and are spread across Russia's vast landmass and 12 time zones, far from the Moscow and St. Petersburg media markets.

Both the Kremlin and the communist opposition have focused attention on the gubernatorial races. After his defeat in the July 3 presidential election, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said the opposition would focus on the regional gubernatorial polls. Kremlin Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais announced the formation of a campaign team to ensure the victory of pro-reform candidates in the regions.