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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Turning Against Moscow

Washington, 26 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Victories by opponents of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in three regional elections highlight the growing tensions between Moscow and the regions, tensions that will only add to the difficulties of the central government.

On Sunday, Vasiliy Starodubtsev, one of the leaders of the hardline communist August 1991 coup, was elected governor of Tula. On the same day, communist Anatoly Belonogov was chosen governor of the Amur region.

Both men will thus be seated in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. And in a by-election also on Sunday, extreme nationalist Dmitriy Rogozhin was elected to the Duma, the parliament's lower house.

Even though all three men can be expected to vote and work against Yeltsin, the president's press spokesman sought to play down the victories of these anti-reform candidates.

Sergey Yastrzhembsky said in Moscow on Tuesday that "a change of leadership in these regions was to be expected" because "the social and economic situation was too tense" there.

But Moscow's problems with the farflung regions of the country are not limited to these three or even to a broader group of regions. Instead, virtually all Russian regions are angry at Moscow and taking steps to demonstrate their effective independence from the center.

At present, only 10 of the country's 89 regions have paid Moscow the tax revenues they owe. And none of the 89 have received the federal money they need to pay pensions or even salaries of federal workers on their territories.

Several are issuing their own alternative currencies in place of the Russian ruble -- one has issued something called the "Ural franc" -- and a few have even ventured into the field of foreign affairs.

On Tuesday, for example, Itar-Tass reported that the Sverdlovsk region had reached an "understanding" with the British foreign office to open a British consulate-generalship in Yekaterinburg this August.

In most countries, decisions about the opening of such diplomatic institutions are normally made by the central government rather than by regional authorities.

Despite these developments, many analysts in both Moscow and the West are quick to point out that none of the regions involved -- except for Chechnya -- is seeking to become an independent country.

Instead, these analysts point out, the leaders of virtually all these regions are taking these actions to increase their own control over local conditions and especially local wealth.

And some analysts as well as most of the regional leaders argue that this decentralization through the decay of Moscow's power over the regions is a precondition for the development of democracy in the country as a whole.

Even to the extent that these observations are correct, in the immediate future, the conscious decision of many regions to oppose Moscow poses three serious challenges to Russian reform.

First, it means that Moscow's writ will seldom run over the country as a whole. That means that at least some regions will be able to block whatever reformist steps the Yeltsin government may take.

Second, the strengthening of regional governments will increase rather than decrease the opportunities for corruption, thus further restraining both economic growth and Western investment.

And third, the legitimation of anti-reformist groups by elections in the regions will make it ever more difficult for Yeltsin to claim that he has a mandate for change.

In the past, Yeltsin and his allies often have argued that many regions support the president. But because Moscow has not lived up to its promises, the number of such regional supporters is clearly declining.

In addition to the three victories over the weekend, there was yet another signal of this pattern on Tuesday. The relatively prosperous Samara region saw the opening of what is scheduled to be a country-wide protest against the Yeltsin government on Thursday.

Itar-Tass commented that "today's act of protest is a warning to the local authorities that social tension is coming to a head even in such a 'well-off' region."

But quite clearly it is a warning to Moscow as well, a clear signal that worsening social and economic conditions in the regions will only exacerbate relations between Moscow and the rest of the country.