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?
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.
But, if the party continues to present an unattractive program and an uncharismatic leader in Gennady Zyuganov, the election of Communist-backed governors will not substantially improve the party's chances either to survive as a cohesive movement or to succeed in building a broad enough base of support that may revive its chances for the ultimate prize - the presidency. Alexander Lebed's name is in vogue these days in Russia not Zyuganov's. The Communist Party, therefore, no matter what happens in the regions this fall, is in danger of being eclipsed over the medium term by other opposition forces with a more directly nationalist bent.
Finally, predictions about a bleaker future for economic reform may be correct, but this will not entirely depend on who fares best in the regional polls. Indeed, under pressure to respond to demands from the electorate, even Kremlin-backed candidates are finding it politically expedient to distance themselves from Moscow's economic reform program.
The result is an emerging pragmatism that may produce very conservative economic policies.
Having lived through eight decades of mostly unsuccessful experiments in political and economic development, Russians are now demanding an end to disruptions in their lives. Elections give them a powerful vehicle for claiming long-term calm from the country's leaders. In regional elections, voters will no doubt prefer to cast their ballots for candidates with the best promise of improving the economic situation in their respective regions without further disrupting people's lives. Gubernatorial candidates who advocate radical shifts in any direction are now exceedingly unpopular and not electable.
Voting for stability
Voters are not the only ones weary from reform; even political leaders are interested in greater stability. Having more or less securely entrenched themselves in a system that preserves their power and wealth, members of the central and regional elite are now interested in protecting it from further transformation. Accordingly, the next few years will likely witness a good degree of consolidation that will not be conducive to further reform.
This means two things.
First, there will most probably be a slowdown in the pace of economic reform.
Second, while small steps backward are likely (such as imposing price controls on selected staples), there is little likelihood that the radical changes that have already occurred will be dramatically reversed. For instance, several of the more prominent NPSR-backed candidates - such as former Yeltsin Vice President and Kursk oblast (region) winner Alexander Rutskoi and new Leningrad oblast governor Vadim Gustov - have already offered reassurances that they do not intend to implement radical changes in economic policies.
So the good news is that no explosion is likely to be produced by Russia's regional elections. The bad news is that what Russia may need right now is an explosion - of sorts - to prevent the freezing of an only partially completed reform program.
*Scott A. Bruckner is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and David J. Kramer is executive coordinator for Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.