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The War in Chechnya Highlights Russia's Growing Regional Dilemna



Oct. 27, 1999

LONDON- The new war in Chechnya is becoming as pointless, self-defeating and counterproductive as the one before. Now that the peace agreement that was stitched together in time for the last presidential election is undone no one, not even General Alexander Lebed, President Boris Yeltsin's last saviour, will be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Yet even if this war does rumble eternally on; even if, as reported, the Moslem fanatics from Afghanistan, the Taliban, are sending their young fighters to the anti-Russian cause, the threat it poses to Russia as a whole is minimal. The real danger to the integrity of Russia lies not in this super- obstreperous, but quite tiny region, but in its own massive size, that bridges eight time zones. Any system less centralised than that of the tsars or the communist dicatatorship poses enormous, complicated and unresolved problems of governance.

As Martin Nicholson, a former adviser on Russian affairs to the British cabinet office, put it in a recent paper written for the International Institute for Strategic Studies,"The rise of regional power in post Soviet Russia is a break with the country's centralised past almost as dramatic as the collapse of communism".

The Russian Federation is not that much less than the size of the Soviet Union. It still remains the world's largest country. The bits that dropped off, from Estonia to the Ukraine to Kazakstan, have made only a fractional reduction to its massive bulk. But what is left is remarkably homogeneous. Despite the country's many nationalities, Russians, together with Russified Ukranians and Belorussians make up around 82% of the population. National minorities living in "their" republics, as in Chechnya, account for less than 10% of the population. More Chechnyas hellbound on separation whatever the cost in blood and treasure are hard to imagine.

Nevertheless, it is not difficult to discern powerful currents towards regionalism, which if not checked, are going to make nonsense of Russia as one nation. Although elected, many regional leaders tend to shun the details of democracy, either co-opting or neutralising their legislatures. Working hand in glove with local business barons and vested interests the privatisation process has been effectively hijacked leading to small, tightly controlled, agglomerations of economic and political power.

The federal judiciary has been weakened and local courts are often subject to pressure from regional authorities. Regional political bosses have worked to inhibit the development of national political parties. Likewise, the regional media is effectively under local political control. Unlike in the days of the Soviet Union, there is now only one national newspaper and one television channel that reach into the provinces.

The danger of such a process is that it leads to moribund societies. If there is little room for the contest of free ideas, there is even less for free economic competition. At the extreme, much of Russia could become like it already has in parts of the Russian Far East - a mafia kingdom, mired in falling living standards, almost zero investment both domestic and foreign, and mindless parochialism, ignoring the calls from Moscow for change and reform.

Fortunately, throughout most of Russia there still remain centripetal forces to help offset the centrifugal ones. Central fiscal control, for example, is still maintained. The security forces do not support separatism. Many of the more important regional politicos aspire to national roles and are attempting, as is often done in the U.S., to use their local base to leapfrog into national power. Moreover, on a number of occasions, new regional leaders have worked as a stabilising influence within the Russian body politic at a time of political crisis, in particular on the occasion of Yeltsin's confrontation with the Duma, the national parliament. Democracy still has its say too. Six incumbent governors were defeated in the eight elections held in the first half of last year.

Yet if Russia is to effectively survive, its president and parliament urgently need to put in place some kind of more rational and comprehensive federal system. Yeltsin, fearful of upsetting a precariously based applecart, has shied away from the challenge, preferring bilateral deals with the various regions, which have not added up either to a coherent logic or a consistent policy. A revamped federal deal is just as important for the long run as the other two pillars of post Soviet reform- the introduction of democracy and the market economy.

What Russia's next president will have to give priority to after the election next July is the design and implementation of such federal arrangements. It must make for a clear division of powers between the centre and the regions, involving in particular economic decision making and the courts. It must impose a unified budget and taxation system common to all regions.

Russia, despite Chechnya, is not only at peace with the outside world but with most of itself. A time when there are no external threats to Russia is a good time for Russia to spend its political energies looking inward. Getting its internal balance right is of fundamental importance if it is to progress.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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