Moscow's New Angst: Yeltsin Loses Power to Hinterlands

Local chiefs flex muscles, help keep stability

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the Republic of Udmurtia, on the Volga River just west of the Ural Mountains, a Soviet central committee, of sorts, has taken control of all state and local government down to the neighborhood level.

The state soviet, or legislature, has turned mayoralties and other elected offices into appointed positions - appointed by the soviet, that is - and nationalized municipal property, meaning city property now belongs to the republic.

The Kremlin is suing Udmurtia in the Constitutional Court for what they allege is unconstitutional and illegal behavior.

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But the real worry of the federal government in Moscow is that the Udmurtian authorities are taking hold of power that has traditionally belonged in Moscow.

One of the most difficult problems facing Kremlin officials is that they may face many more such cases of regional rebellion in coming months.

Moscow is losing a huge amount of leverage throughout Russia.

After 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed the governors of Russia's territories and provinces, so that they served more or less at his pleasure.

But by the end of this year, nearly every governor will have been elected by popular vote, replacing Yeltsin appointees with independently elected politicians.

The winners not only become the chief executives of their republics, territories, and provinces, but they make up half of the Federation Council, which is the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.

The upshot of these regional elections is not that communists, nationalists, or other ideological foes of Mr. Yeltsin are dominating the results. They are not. Of 18 gubernatorial elections held so far this fall, nine were won by the incumbents. Of the others, three winners were supported by a Yeltsin-backed coalition of centrists and democrats, four by a nationalist-communist coalition, and two by neither.

What's new is the independence of these regional leaders. Some Russian analysts believe the new political battle line is not between communists and reformers, but between Moscow and the regions.

"Several months ago, it was enough for Boris Yeltsin to say a word and bad behavior would stop," says Leonid Smirnyagin, a Kremlin staff expert on regional relations, speaking from the Kremlin point of view.

Inklings of independent action

But with an all-elected Federation Council and regional leadership, he says, "the beginning of next year will be very difficult." Relations with the regions are mostly good now, but "soon governors will realize their real power and become more hostile."

The challenges come from halfway around the world in Vladivostok, where Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko has been known to try to negotiate the Russian border with the Chinese on his own authority. And they come from Moscow itself, where Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is leading a protest of eight wealthy regions seeking to keep more of their earnings from passing through the federal treasury to the rest of Russia.

Some Russian republics, such as Tuva on the Mongolian border, make no legal acknowledgment of Russia's federal sovereignty, arguing that federal laws must be approved locally.

For the vast majority of Russia's 89 federal territories, the relationship with Moscow is a profitable proposition.

In next year's federal budget, only 10 territories will pay more to Moscow than they receive back. Most government employees in any given place, from police to tax inspectors to military conscription officials, are federal employees on a federal salary. But local officials have some leverage over these employees too - since they usually supply their housing and the schools for their children.

Dominique Gualtieri, a Moscow-based expert on the Federation Council for the Canadian parliament, takes a mild view of the independence of Russia's regions. "Yes, authority has been devolving to the regions, and significant authority." But he sees this as a healthy development in what has been one of the world's mostly highly centralized states in the world.

Mr. Smirnyagin agrees that Russia has suffered from "overcentralization of our state, our church, our culture from the beginning." He also agrees that Russia is not facing a disintegration on the scale faced by the Soviet Union in 1991. "Udmurtia is absolutely impossible to imagine as a Chechnya," which declared independence from Russia in 1991, leading to civil war.

But the Russian federal government now is too weak, he argues, unable to enforce decisions of its Constitutional Court. As the governors grow stronger, he says, "the most dangerous thing is the absence of political will in the federal center."

A senior political adviser to Yeltsin, Gyorgy Satarov, says that the Udmurtia case is an example of the federal government trying to stop undemocratic ways in the provinces. This ability is one of the next critical steps in state-building that President Yeltsin alone can take when he returns to active duty, says Mr. Satarov.

Strong state hand ... temporarily

The head of Udmurtia's State Council, or GosSoviet, Alexander Volkov, is certainly no partisan or ideological rival of Yeltsin. He was chairman of Yeltsin's re-election campaign in Udmurtia, and his staff claims that he was the first governor to visit Yeltsin in the sanatorium when the president fell ill after the election.

The young, friendly leader says that he is trying to do in Udmurtia exactly what Yeltsin is asking regional leaders to do - "use state power to protect market reforms."

He has consolidated state power by transforming the mayor of the capital city, Izhevsk, and other local-level elected officials into appointed bureaucrats. The GosSoviet then dismissed the mayor for alleged misuse of government funds. The GosSoviet also appropriated municipal property with the eventual aim, says Mr. Volkov, of passing it all the way down to local neighborhood governments.

If this sounds undemocratic, he says, it is only because Udmurtia needs more economic development before it can attain a higher level of democracy. Udmurtia is trying to privatize its economy as much as possible and needs a strong state hand to do it. "Government is becoming more centralized because of the economic crisis, but centralization is not the point. We hope for economic development to leave government with a minimal role," he says.

He studied how President Franklin Roosevelt dealt with the Great Depression and read that at one point Roosevelt threatened banks with nationalization if they did not loosen their lending practices. "In difficult periods, the role of the state is more important," he says.

The Kremlin is trying to make the same principle work from Moscow.

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