At Stake in Russia's Endless Elections
The good news is no explosion is likely in regional polls. The bad news is an explosion may be needed to keep reform going
For the fourth time in 12 months, Russian voters are going to the polls. Following parliamentary elections last December and two rounds of the presidential election this past summer, gubernatorial elections are being held in 52 of the country's 89 regions. These races, underway since September and continuing through the end of the year, have gone virtually unnoticed in the West. Just what is at stake?Skip to next paragraph
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A great deal, according to some.
First, regional elections will turn the leaders of Russia's administrative districts from presidential appointees into independent actors. Therefore, many predict the newly elected governors will more aggressively challenge central authorities and, ultimately, the center-regional distribution of power, resulting in a destabilizing struggle between Moscow and the regions.
Second, although Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decisive victory this summer seemed to signal the demise of the Communist Party as a potent force, some have begun to fear that Communists could fare extremely well in the regional polls and thereby reestablish their position as the country's most troublesome and backward-looking opposition force.
Finally, several observers have argued that a strong showing by opposition candidates in the regional polls - they have won 11 of the 20 races held so far - could once again put economic reform in jeopardy.
Not as dire as predicted
Regional elections this fall are certainly consequential, if only as a further step toward consolidating democratic practice. But the outcome of these polls is unlikely to be as dire as some observers are predicting.
First, regional elections will produce a number of independent governors who are no longer beholden to central authorities for their positions of power. Emboldened by their electoral victories, the new governors may want to openly challenge central policies. But they will have to balance this interest against a more pressing need to solve local problems and to guarantee greater stability for their constituents.
In the end, this will probably mean seeking accommodation, not provoking confrontation, with Moscow. In fact, the newly elected governors are likely to follow the lead of some of their previously elected colleagues - including the most powerful, such as Boris Nemtsov of Nizhny Novgorod and Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan - who have avoided confrontation with Moscow by signing treaties with the federal government. These treaties have not only sorted out center-regional relations but also transformed former regional opposition leaders into supporters of the current central regime.
Second, the future of Communists as a prominent force in Russian politics depends less on their success in the regional elections and more on resolving their own internal problems. Having shed its most radical members and departed from its staunchly oppositionist orientation, the Communist Party has been reorganized as a more pragmatic force (the Popular Patriotic Union of Russia - NPSR) that could now be more appealing to moderate voters.