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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Regions Represent A Political Force

Washington, 25 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- People in the small and medium-sized cities of Russia's farflung regions may ultimately provide the political base for a move against corruption and organized crime in the country as a whole. And as such, this demographic group may come to play a major role in the current reshuffling of the Russian government.

Less touched by corruption and crime themselves but increasingly fearful of both, such Russians represent a potentially powerful political force waiting to be tapped by Moscow politicians who are prepared to play to their concerns.

To the extent that happens, Russia's regions could play a somewhat unexpected role in reestablishing government authority and promoting democratic and free market reforms.

Yuri Veremeyenko, editor in chief of Moscow's Invest 100 magazine and the former spokesmen for the governor of Tver, told RFE/RL in Washington on Monday that media exposes about organized crime have left people in smaller Russian cities fearful.

More than that, these stories on Russian television and in the national newspapers have convinced the residents of such cities that they are equally threatened even though statistics suggest that such people are much less likely to be victims of crime than they believe.

As a result, Veremeyenko said that the residents of these Russian regions are ever more prepared to support law-and-order candidates, especially if the latter couch their message in terms of a nationalist defense of Russia itself.

Asked which Russian leader might find it the easiest to tap into such sentiments, Veremeyenko, who also heads the Tver Association of Political Culture, immediately named retired general and former presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed.

But Veremeyenko suggested that other Moscow leaders were likely to turn increasingly to this issue, running as it were against crime, the long-despised "center," and foreigners whom many Russians blame for their current problems.

Indeed, Veremeyenko argued, President Boris Yeltsin himself might seek to draw on precisely these sentiments as he moves to form a new government following his dismissal of the entire cabinet earlier this week.

In an otherwise upbeat characterization of the role such attitudes and appeals to them could play, Veremeyenko argued that there were three potentially serious downside risks.

First, few Russians in the regions have much experience with either democracy or law and thus may be prepared to back anyone who says he can eliminate crime regardless of the methods he proposes to use.

Second, any link-up between these anti-crime attitudes with anti-foreign ones could help power a very ugly kind of xenophobic nationalism, something that could short-circuit the path toward reforms of all kinds.

And third, at least for the next few years, the power of those who have benefited from corruption and organized crime may be so great that any movement that sought to root out these evils could fail and thus undercut public confidence in democratic institutions.

Although Veremeyenko did not mention them, two other factors undoubtedly work against the successful use of these anti-crime attitudes in Russia's regions.

On the one hand, Russian politics remains so centered on Moscow that few politicians there yet seem ready to reach out beyond the ring road around the Russian capital.

Consequently, they may raise this issue but not seek to mobilize opinion outside Moscow in any systematic way.

And on the other hand, many Russians in the regions, like many Russians in Moscow, appear to have little faith in the political system as a solution to their problems.

To the extent that they feel insulted and injured but see no obvious redress to their difficulties within the political system, they may simply withdraw, seeking to protect themselves as best they can rather than supporting someone who can address their problems.

For all these reasons, Veremeyenko may be far too optimistic about the role Russia's regions will play in the future of that country.

But his comments that attitudes outside of Moscow may help to overcome crime and corruption there suggest that Russia's regions may play a positive role, something few Russian leaders or observers have been willing to consider in the past.