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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Putting Russia's Regions In Play

Washington, 10 October 1997(RFE/RL) - Both Russian President Boris Yeltsin and communist opposition leader Gennady Zyuganov are attempting to enlist the support of the leaders of Russia's farflung regions.

Their respective appeals to a group few in Moscow have paid much attention to in the past reflect both disarray in the Russian capital and a shift in power from Moscow to the regions, a shift that many see as a precondition for the development of Russian democracy.

But because Moscow and regional leaders do not agree on who should perform which functions, the latter are likely to exploit this situation to take even more power from the central government, something that could put some of Russia's reforms at risk.

On Thursday, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called on regional leaders who form the upper house of the Russian parliament to back him in his battle with the government over economic reform and to agree to take part in a roundtable on Russia's future course.

In the past, the regional leaders have been less hostile to Yeltsin and the Russian government than has the Duma, the lower house. But Zyuganov indicated that he believes the government's plan to cut subsidies to the regions will drive them into his corner.

But Zyuganov is not the only player in this competition for the support of regional leaders. Two weeks ago, Yeltsin addressed the Federation Council and suggested that he was willing to yield even more power to the regions that body's members represent.

Noting that there were problems between Moscow and the regions and between the regions and local officials, the Russian President suggested that the country needs to consider another draft law on "the division of powers" between these various levels of authority.

"A lot of regional leaders already have enough experience, including with foreign partners, so some of our laws or treaties on the division of powers may need to be reviewed," Yeltsin said.

And he noted that "in the case of regions with whom we do not yet have treaties, we take account of these points, that is, give you more independence than today. I support this."

Because both Yeltsin and Zyuganov are competing for their support, the leaders of the regions now have the opportunity to play one group off against the other, extracting additional commitments for favors as the price of their support.

That is what the leaders of Russia's regions did in 1991 and again in 1993. And their demands at those times had the effect of leading to a radical and even uncontrolled flow of power from Moscow to the regions.

Since the adoption of the latest Russian constitution, in December 1993, Yeltsin has used the enormous powers of his office relative to those of the parliament to limit or at least regularize this process.

And in the absence of divisions in the Moscow political elite, the regions have had less success in extracting even more powers from the central authorities.

Now, however, Zyuganov has raised the possibility that these regional leaders may be able to exploit such divisions in the Russian capital once again.

Clearly, he is hoping for that. But because of the changes in Russian politics over the last few years, Zyuganov's hopes may be misplaced.

The regional leaders recognize that Yeltsin and not the Duma holds most of the cards. And they know that Yeltsin is prepared to play these cards against anyone who opposes him.

But because Moscow as a whole relative to the regions is so much weaker than it was in the past, Zyuganov may put the regions into play once again even though he may not be the chief beneficiary.

Instead, the regional leaders are likely to gain more power at the expense of Moscow -- even if their gains do not spark a constitutional crisis as they have in the past.