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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Regionalization Now Could Prove Ephemeral

Washington, 18 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The current period of relative stabilization in Russian politics reflects the increasing power of that country's farflung regions rather than the emergence of a new consensus in Moscow.

But because this devolution of power from the center to the periphery was a result of the unplanned decay of a hypercentralized state rather than the product of constitutional agreement and because such regional power is unprecedented in Russian history, the set of arrangements producing stability now may generate something else in the future.

Both possibilities flowing from the new regionalization of Russian politics -- toward greater stability and toward new clashes between the Moscow and the regions -- have been very much on public view this week.

On the one hand, Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of the power-sharing treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan. That document, the first of more than 40 that have been signed since, simultaneously codified a new situation in which the regions had gained power as Moscow lost it. They have thus helped to redefine precisely what the Russian Federation in fact is.

Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev suggested that Moscow-Kazan treaty laid the foundations for a set of "absolutely new relations" between the Russian capital and Russian regions. And he argued that these agreements represented "an attempt to work out the mechanics of representing local interests rather than being a manifestation of separatism."

Consequently, Shaimiyev added, these accords do not threaten the territorial integrity of Russia. Instead, they have brought stability to that country. And as a mark of the new calm they have produced, Shaimiyev noted that his government was not planning any special celebration of this anniversary. For him and his people, it has become an accustomed part of life.

But on the other hand, three developments this week highlight the ways in which the new power of the regions may provoke some serious political controversies in the future.

First, Aleksandr Lebed, a former Russian presidential candidate and more recently secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that he was focusing all his efforts on winning the governorship of Krasnoyarsk.

Brushing aside questions about his possible presidential ambitions in the future, Lebed nonetheless indicated that the region he hopes to head could become a powerful base for challenging the central Russian government both on its own and in alliance with other regions.

In a formulation that may become his campaign slogan in the future, Lebed argued that "Russia can be a strong and respectable country on only one basis: that it has independent regions, linked by common interests."

Such a slogan may win the retired general friends in many regions, but it certainly looks like a threat to any pretensions Moscow may have to recover overall leadership of the country.

Second, the current governor of Krasnoyarsk, Valeriy Zubov, told a Japanese audience that his region wants to reach out to foreign countries for ties and investments and that he hopes Tokyo and other world capitals will respond.

Zubov's visit follows the Russian-Japanese summit held in his region in November 1997 and thus may be seen as logical progression of regional trade ties. But his appeal for international cooperation calls attention to something many have overlooked: ethnically Russian regions have been even more active and more successful than non-Russian ones in promoting ties with foreign countries.

Neither of these developments necessarily threatens the integrity of the country either. Indeed, like the Moscow-Kazan accord, they may actually place limits on such possibilities. But at the same time, both suggest that the central government must now operate under a set of constraints imposed by the region not only far greater than any it has accepted in the past but which threaten its ability to function. And as the third development of the week shows, many in Moscow may not be willing or able to accept such limitations.

On Tuesday, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that Ingushetia could not conduct a referendum that would have made the judicial system in that north Caucasian republic directly subordinate to its president, Ruslan Aushev. The court held that the plan violates the country's legal norms and interferes with the power of the federal authorities.

If Ingushetia accepts that ruling, it will be a victory for a more orderly federalism. But if it does not -- and its acceptance of such dictates is far from certain -- Moscow's demands could spark a more serious problem, not so much another Chechnya but rather a new series of regional challenges to the center.

And that is why the new regionalization of politics is so problematic. Moscow must reestablish its control over certain functions if the Russian Federation is to become an effective state. But the regions are likely to be reluctant to give up anything they have won lest they again face an all-powerful Moscow.

Shaimiyev, Lebed, and many others are prepared to play out this game within the Russian political system. But as Chechnya shows, some other regional leaders may not be. And if that proves to be the case, then the stability wrought by regionalization now could prove ephemeral.