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Russia: Analysis From Washington--When Elections Interact

Washington, 30 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ever more people are linking together not only campaigns for different offices within one country, but also political races taking place in different countries as well. And that development inevitably creates confusion in the minds of some voters, presents serious policy challenges, and may transform political arrangements in countries undergoing rapid change.

Both voters and candidates in many countries have often viewed elections to one set of offices as a trial run for later elections to higher office, but seldom has this link been as explicit as it now is in the ongoing campaign for the Russian State Duma.

Virtually every leader of the newly formed electoral blocs during the weekend suggested that the outcome of this parliamentary vote will determine who will be the candidates in the Russian presidential poll next summer. On the one hand, such statements are simply smart politics, designed to grab the attention of the electorate by suggesting that a vote in the Duma election will cast a large shadow on the more important presidential race.

But on the other, such statements introduce a certain confusion into the political system and may even lead to a dramatic change in the relationship between the parliament and the presidency in a political system that is far from consolidated.

From the perspective of voters, suggestions that a vote now in the Duma elections will play a double role inevitably raises the question as to just what the voter will get. Is he or she being asked to help select those who will make the laws? Or is this only a primary for a subsequent presidential race?

And from the perspective of the candidates and the political system as a whole, do such suggestions push the Russian government toward greater presidentialism by further denigrating the status of the parliament? Or do they have just the opposite effect, weakening the office of the president by elevating the status of the parliament at the expense of the presidency?

Any one of these outcomes is certainly possible, and their very range in turn calls attention to the weakness of government structures in the Russian political system and the continuing, perhaps even predominant impact of personalities and the sometimes accidental conjunctions of political alliances.

But the impact of these linkages in Russia has been compounded in three ways by another and more unusual linkage - that between the elections taking place in that country and those taking place elsewhere and particularly in the United States.

First, and by far the least striking, is the fact that simultaneous sets of elections tend to make it more difficult rather than less for the countries involved to make longer term arrangements. The leaders in both inevitably recognize that there may be a new set of players in the other capital or their own and thus are less willing or able to reach agreement.

That pattern has often played out in relations between the United States and other democracies, but this is the first time that it is taking place between Washington and Moscow - precisely because the elections in Russia at both levels appear to be far less predictable than any since the fall of Communism.

Second, and precisely because each of these countries is so important for the other, candidates for office in each of these countries are devoting a great deal of attention to recent developments and possible outcomes in the other.

In Russia, this has led to a discussion of whether American intentions toward Russia will change after the elections next year. And in the United States, it has triggered debates over whether the U.S. has "lost" Russia or whether Washington's current approach should be radically redefined in response to the drift of Russian political behavior.

And third, this linkage has often served as an excuse, particularly in Russia, for not focusing on real problems and real possibilities. During the past week, for example, many Russian columnists and candidates have suggested that the alleged Russian money laundering scandal at the Bank of New York is actually an effort by one part of the American political establishment to embarrass another and thus gain electoral advantage.

Such charges and the inevitable counter charges have already had the effect of coarsening political discourse in both countries, a development that could make the future relationship between the two more rather than less difficult - regardless of who is elected in either. And that by itself could further undermine the optimism Russians and Americans had about the impact of Russia's democratization on international affairs.