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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Federalism And Democracy

Washington, 12 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's reported decision to dismiss a democratically-elected regional governor might help to impose some order on that country's often chaotic federal system.

But it could also have just the opposite effect and further undermine that system either by intimidating some regional leaders or by prompting others in the regions to resist any recovery of power by the center.

And Yeltsin's decision could have even more negative consequences if it leads more Russians to lose confidence in the commitment of their leaders in democratic procedures or to conclude that only authoritarian means will promote further reform.

On Tuesday, a Yeltsin spokesman said the Russian president had decided to dismiss the governor of Primorsky kray, a region in the Russian Far East. The spokesman added that Yeltsin had decided to take this unprecedented step on the basis of his constitutional mandate to protect and defend the Russian people.

And the governor in question, Yevgeniy Nazdratenko, has certainly acted in ways that would appear to give Yeltsin some justification for his position.

Relying on his local popularity, Nazdratenko has routinely ignored central authority on questions of taxation and economic reform. And he has even challenged Moscow on the issue of a Russian-Chinese treaty delimiting the border between those two countries.

But if Nazdratenko has behaved in a provative manner, Yeltsin's proposed remedy seems likely to lead to even more negative results, a fact that Yeltsin himself appears to appreciate by the way in which he has edged up to this decision.

Over the last two years, Yeltsin has undercut Nazdratenko by transferring as much power locally as possible to a presidentially-appointed official and by withholding funds due to the Primorskiy kray.

Further, Yeltsin and his government have openly hinted that Nazdratenko should resign. And the pro-government media have kept up a drumbeat of articles denouncing Nazdratenko for all manner of sins in his region.

All this suggests that Yeltsin himself recognizes just how shaky his proposed constitutional justification for removing Nazdratenko really is.

The December 1993 Russian constitution is vague in many areas but nowhere more than on the question of just what it means regarding the president's right to stand above and outside the constitutional system in order to defend it.

Other countries -- including the United States during the Civil War and the Watergate crisis -- have wrestled with this same problem, but none have found a satisfactory way out. And Yeltsin is unlikely to be able to do so either.

His proposed action is especially risky because of the nature of center-periphery relations in Russia since the collapse of Soviet power in 1991.

On the one hand, over the last six years, power has flowed out of Moscow to the regions less as the result of careful planning and devolution than as the result of the collapse of central authority.

And on the other, relations between Moscow and the regions have generally been viewed not as a partnership with an agreed-upon division of responsibilities but rather as a zero-sum game about all issues, one where a gain by one side is seen as a loss by the other.

Together, these two factors are likely to mean that the regions will see Moscow's attempt to recover control over some functions as being the first step toward its recovery of control over all.

To the extent that happens, some will bow to what they see as the inevitable and others will resist. And consequently, Yeltsin's actions against a far-away governor could quickly precipitate a constitutional crisis in Russia as a whole.