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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Fighting Separatism In Russia

Washington, 18 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has announced plans to step up the fight against separatist tendencies in the Russian Federation -- lest that country go the way of the Soviet Union.

Speaking on Friday to separate meetings of the Siberian Agreement -- one of several interregional cooperation groups -- and of the Kemerovo oblast authorities, Primakov said Moscow "will not allow Russia to be lost" in the way that "we lost the Soviet Union."

And he pledged to work together with the regions "to stifle, liquidate, and root out separatist tendencies" wherever they exist, both by making some changes in Moscow's approach and by demanding other changes from the regions as well.

Primakov's remarks on regional policy are significant for three reasons:

First, they represent a remarkable acknowledgment by a senior Russian official of just how serious the problem of separatism in the Russian Federation continues to be.

Many analysts inside Russia and beyond have long called attention to this problem. But since the end of the Chechen war, most senior Russian officials have followed President Boris Yeltsin in maintaining that the danger of separatism in Russia has "passed."

And most Western governments have accepted that claim at face value and dealt with that country as if the Russian Federation were a solid and unified federal state.

But now that Primakov has admitted that separatism remains a serious issue and that Russia today is far from united, his words are likely to affect Western governments in two diametrically opposite ways:

Some of these governments are likely to become even more cautious in dealing with the regions lest they appear to be undermining Primakov.

But at the same time, others may devote more attention to the regions both directly and in their recommendations to central Russian officials.

Second, in his remarks about the dangers of separatism and the need to combat it, the Russian prime minister provided some important clues as to what his new regional policy may look like.

He said that he was for "restoring of the state vertical administration system in which all matters are tackled jointly by the center and local bodies."

He called for an increase in regional representation in the management structures of enterprises rather than "the transfer of blocks of shares belong to the state to local government bodies."

And urged the regions to agree to cooperate with his government "without changing any legislation."

In each case, Primakov's proposals suggest at least a partial return to the centralist, elitist, and closed-door politics of the Soviet past in which Primakov spent most of his career but in which the interests of the regions typically lost out to those of Moscow.

And third, in words that may be the most important part of his message to regional leaders, the Russian prime minister used the occasion of his meetings with regional officials to underscore that he wants to increase spending on the Russian military.

"We cannot keep our backs turned any longer on the armed forces," Primakov said. Specifically, he said he favored boosting defense spending to the 3.8 percent of GDP that senior Russian commanders have asked for.

Primakov's comments on this last point were clearly addressed to a larger audience both in Russia and beyond. But the regional officials who first heard them are likely to view them as having a particular meaning for them.

On the one hand, increased defense expenditures will make it more difficult for Moscow to maintain or increase subsidies to regions, a trend that could exacerbate center-periphery relations still further.

And on the other, Primakov's brandishing of his support for the military, an entity that the central authorities have relied on as the ultimate sanction but one they have lost some control over in recent years, may have appeared overtly threatening to some present.

As a result, Primakov's call for "a strong alliance of mutual cooperation between the center the subjects of the Federation," could backfire, generating the very separatist impulses that the Russian prime minister is now trying to suppress.