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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Every Village With Its Own Foreign Ministry?

Washington, 26 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Foreign Ministry is both pleased and concerned by the ever-increasing role that country's far-flung regions and republics are playing in foreign affairs.

It is pleased by the role such activities are playing in attracting foreign investment and in maintaining ties with ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet states. But it is increasingly disturbed by the ways such activities distort Moscow's foreign policy message and also by the ways that such activities promote centrifugal and even separatist tendencies across the Russian Federation.

Both these hopes and fears are described in an article by an ambassador who oversees the foreign ministry's relationships with the regions. Writing in the current issue of the Russian foreign policy journal "International Affairs," Eduard Kuzmin provides details about developments that he terms encouraging and others that he suggests give rise to concern.

According to Kuzmin, the foreign policy activities of Russia's regions have played a positive role in almost every case. He reports that individual regions such as Leningrad and Nizhnii Novgorod have been able to attract significant direct investment from abroad, but he notes that sometimes the various regions compete against each other in ways that often mean Russia as a whole loses out.

And he praises the ties Russia's regions have established with regions in the former Soviet republics. Kuzmin says that units of the Russian Federation have signed 154 agreements of various kinds with regions in Ukraine, 73 agreements with regions in Belarus, 100 with regions in Kazakhstan, and approximately 150 with regions in other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Not only do such crossborder ties help to protect ethnic Russians in these states, Kuzmin argues, but they help to promote the integration of these countries one with another. Consequently, Moscow welcomes these activities as an extension of central policy.

But at the same time, Kuzmin notes that the foreign policy activities of Russia's regions and republics sometimes create problems. In the absence of close coordination between Moscow and the regions, regional leaders sometimes say and do things which undercuts Moscow's efforts.

He notes that "there have been deviations from Russia's fundamental policy principles in relations with Taiwan and in interacting with the UN and its specialized agencies." And he urges that the Russian Duma adopt legislation to prevent that from continuing to happen in the future.

More serious still from Kuzmin's point of view is the way in which participation in foreign policy activities promotes separatist sentiment. At the present time, he says, "many republics often go beyond the scope of the Russian Federation Constitution" and assert their rights to have a "'republic foreign policy'" on questions of war and peace, nuclear free zones, and other matters that constitutionally are the exclusive prerogative of Moscow.

And the ability of some regions to get away with such actions is leading ever more of the country's regions and republics to think about it. According to Kuzmin, "if things go on like this," some senior officials in Moscow fear that "soon every small village will want to open its own Foreign Affairs Ministry," a situation that could make it even more difficult for Russia to recover from its current crisis. According to Kuzmin, these developments are not likely to lead to a new "sovereignty bandwagon" anytime soon. He suggests that "there is a growing conviction that the country can be turned around without being turned back to Unitarianism" and also that "there is an increasing awareness among the national-regional elites that the path to 'fiefdoms' is counterproductive."

In support of that conclusion, Kuzmin points to the rise of eight multi-region associations. Organized by the leaders of the regions themselves, these supra-regional groupings now play a large role in both central policies and foreign affairs.

And Kuzmin suggests that they may even become the basis for a new federalism in Russia, one in which the powers of the central government and those of the constituent units will be in balance and thus allow for the rise of a civil society.

Kuzmin ends his article by quoting with approval the early twentieth century Russian nationalist writer Ivan Il'in. More than half a century ago, Il'in suggested that Russia is "above all a great people that has not frittered away its resources and has not lost its bearings or its identity. ... Do not bury it yet!"