Russia's Center Is Failing to Hold

MOSCOW: For most of its nine years of postcommunist transition Russia's political blocs were too deeply divided to work together except negatively – this at a time when the country demanded resolute and positive decisions. Recently, however, Russian politics witnessed a spate of political marriages, some tactical, some "shotgun" unions that smack of desperation. No matter how contrived, these political alliances are revealing: they highlight Russia's political decentralization from which there now appears to be no turning back.

Proof of the potency of Russia's political decentralization has come from the center itself. Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's bumptious mayor, allied his Fatherland Party with All Russia, a grouping bringing together a majority of Russia's provincial governors. Once hitched to the governors, Mayor Luzhkov was able to attract as their candidate for president next year Yevgeny Primakov, the popular former spymaster-cum-prime minister (and supposedly Russia's most trusted man), who had been sacked by President Yeltsin last May due to his very popularity.

Originally, provincial governors were seen as creatures of Boris Yelstin, who appointed them after the break-up of the USSR and used their control of the upper house of the Duma as a cudgel to check the communist-dominated lower house. But in the mid-1990s governorships became elected offices. Through this electoral legitimacy (no matter how rigged the elections), Russia's governors secured enormous weight in the political system. They now jealously guard their power and band together to protect their prerogatives and perks. Moreover, governors play a vital role in such key issues as determining whether a region attracts foreign investment or is shunned by international businessmen.

One of the main power bases of the governors is their decisive influence over the voters in their regions who will decide the outcome of this December's parliamentary elections, as well as the presidential elections next June. By adding the governors to his electoral machine, Primakov has stolen the men who turned the last presidential elections Yeltsin's way.