Washington, 17 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A dramatic increase in the number and intensity of ties between Russia's regions and a variety of foreign countries has prompted the central Russian government to set up a special department to deal with such contacts.
Established earlier this year to "regulate rather than forbid" such contacts, the new department in the Russian foreign ministry has yet to receive full parliamentary approval. The Duma approved the measure last month, but the Federation Council -- in which the regions are represented directly -- has yet to back it.
On the one hand, many people in Moscow approve such expanded contacts between the regions and foreign countries. Not only do such ties help to promote economic development, but they are widely viewed in Europe and the United States as entirely natural.
The European Union, for example, has institutionalized sub-state representation in a variety of forums. And any number of American states maintain special liaison offices in key foreign trading partners.
Moreover, the Russian authorities themselves have openly pushed ties between regions within the Commonwealth of Independent States as a means of promoting the integration of that organization's 12 member countries.
But on the other hand, even more officials in the Russian capital are concerned about the problems such contacts may cause Russian foreign policy, Russian political development, and even the stability of the Russian state.
Representatives of the foreign ministry noted several weeks ago that Moscow was extremely unhappy when several Russian regions entered into direct economic contacts with Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia. Such contacts undercut Moscow's efforts to promote ties with Tbilisi.
The Russian Foreign Ministry was even more upset when representatives of Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Sakha, Tatarstan and several other regions participated in an Istanbul conference that formally recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Not only did that declaration contradict settled Russian policy on that island, but it inevitably raised questions in the Greek portion of the island about just how reliable a partner the Russian government would prove to be in the future.
And the Russian Foreign Ministry openly complained to the press in June that Saratov Governor Dmitriy Ayatskov's efforts to promote ties with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl crossed the line between what Moscow considers permissible and what it does not.
The Russian government is also concerned about the ways in which such ties between its regions and foreign countries could affect domestic political development. While the central authorities seem pleased by the economic aspect of such contacts, they are less happy about the way in which such an independent source of wealth allows the regions to act with respect to Moscow.
Indeed, regions with significant foreign ties often negotiate with the relatively weak central government from a position of strength and that allows the regions rather than Moscow to gain the upper hand on issues including tax collections and the implementation of centrally adopted laws.
And finally, of course, many in Moscow are nervous about the way in which such ties could help to power secessionist movements within the Russian Federation. Many of the most independent-minded regions of the country, ethnic Russian and non-Russian alike, are actively pushing to have representatives abroad, just as some union republics did in the Soviet period.
Indeed, several recent Russian commentaries have recalled the symbolic importance for Ukrainians and Belarusians of the missions to the United Nations that these two republics maintained from 1945 to the end of Soviet power.
Tatarstan, for example, now has representatives of various kinds in more than 15 countries. Chechnya is actively pursuing such contacts. And even regions like Leningrad, Pskov, and Karelia are entering into special relationships with foreign states.
In most countries around the world, such ties between regions and foreign countries would not seem to be a serious problem. There, both the central governments and the regions recognize that there is a more or less natural division between their powers and responsibilities.
But that is not the case in Russia. In that country, both Moscow and the regions tend to view the relationship as one in which the gains of Moscow appear to the regions like a return to hypercentralization and the gains of the regions look to Moscow like the first step toward secession.
Because that is so, the contacts Russian regions now have with foreign countries could prove explosive. But the creation of a new office at the Russian Foreign Ministry suggests that Moscow may now be on the road to institutionalizing in that country something that has long been common in others.