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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Stacks the Deck

On Sept. 17, President Boris Yeltsin published a decree recommending that regional dumas put off elections for a year and a half, until June 1997. The decree, which came just four months ahead of the scheduled parliamentary elections, cited various reasons for the postponement, but clearly these were not the motivating force. As usual, it's not the arguments that matter, but the political meaning and consequences.

The disillusionment of most Russians with the current political and economic course is apparent to all serious analysts. The political structure of the State Duma will change radically as a result of the December elections. An overwhelming majority of the seats will go to nationalist opposition parties. The centrists' chances are exceedingly problematic. The democratic wing will be represented by an insignificant minority. Yeltsin's plan to control the election process by manipulating the two centrist blocs loyal to him (Viktor Chernomyrdin's and Ivan Rybkin's) was a total failure.

On the one hand, this sharply reduces the president's room for political maneuver, and, on the other hand, it may leave him with a parliament hostile both to his politics and to him personally come December. If so, many analysts say this may lead to the dissolution of the new State Duma and the postponement of the presidential election, an election which does not augur well at this point for Yeltsin.

It is in this context that the Sept. 17 decree must be viewed. Yeltsin is still actively engaged in policy-making and, despite his diminished ratings, seems quietly intent on running for re-election. In the old days, when he was still fighting to gain power, the political winds were in his favor, but now, when the president is fighting to hang on, the winds are against him. Yeltsin has far from exhausted his political will. But however energetic his policy, it could never be called aggressive or even preventive. Yeltsin has an unfortunate habit of responding to every political situation with personally damaging delay. The Sept. 17 decree is yet another delayed response, however strong.

The decree's purpose is transparent: to maintain the status quo, at least in the regions, given the virtually inevitable loss in the State Duma. Yeltsin is gambling on the regions. Witness the president's newfound affinity for the freshly elected governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Eduard Rossel. Only recently, Yeltsin saw Rossel as a dangerous separatist -- today the two are political allies. Speaking in Yekaterinburg recently, Federation Council speaker Vladimir Shumeiko announced that "The political center is shifting to the Urals."

The regional parliamentarians currently in place are, in principle, more loyal to the president than their possible successors and they would be personally indebted to Yeltsin for any extension of their terms; they would also become a real political power on which he could rely for support in case of a confrontation with the State Duma.

As for the regional parliamentarians, most of whom have little chance of being re-elected, Yeltsin's decree is a gift from heaven. A secret vote on the president's recommendation in the Moscow regional duma found nearly 70 percent of the deputies in favor. This outcome, not surprisingly, is typical. Most regional deputies would rather not subject themselves to the vicissitudes of fate and the fickleness of the voters.

As well, Yeltsin's decree calls for holding elections of regional governors ? most of whom are government appointees ? in December 1996. The three exceptions are the governors of the Moscow, Novgorod and Omsk regions who would stand this December along with the candidates for the State Duma.

Yeltsin's object in recommending early elections for the regional governors of Moscow (Anatoly Tyazhlov), Novgorod (Mikhail Prusak) and Omsk (Leonid Polezha-yev) is again obvious: All three are the president's men. Maverick Governor Boris Nemtsov, famous for his pioneering of land reform in the Nizhny Novgorod region, has repeatedly appealed to the president to let him hold gubernatorial elections and repeatedly been turned down. Yeltsin has no interest in increasing the popularity and political ratings of the independent and ungovernable young governor. Yeltsin needs only his own people to be elected. Tyazhlov is a crucial figure in this respect.

The Moscow, Novgorod and Omsk governors have every chance of being elected; if there were any doubt about this, Yeltsin would not have included them in his decree. All else aside, the critical factor here is time, which will work in favor of the incumbents and against possible opponents.

The Moscow, Novgorod and Omsk dumas have yet to pass a law on gubernatorial elections. By the time they have passed the laws, the opponents will have little or no time left in which to put together an effective campaign. Many of them may not manage to gather the number of signatures necessary to be nominated in the first place.

Not surprisingly, Tyazhlov called on deputies of the Moscow regional duma to approve Yeltsin's recommendations. Tyazhlov's relations with his parliamentarians have been far from smooth. But if elected, the governor would have a serious moral advantage over his duma. If in the past parliamentarians were elected while governors were appointed by the president, as a result of Yeltsin's new decree, the situation would be reversed in the Moscow, Novgorod and Omsk regions. Tyazhlov would take up his post as the result of a popular mandate, while the regions' parliamentarians would remain in place thanks to the president. Tyazhlov would use this advantage in case of a confrontation.

Meanwhile, in the context of national politics, the president's decree could have serious long-term repercussions. The 18-month postponement of regional duma elections could become a precedent and a first step toward the postponement of the presidential election, one delay in which Boris Yeltsin has a vital interest.

Mikhail Gorelick is a freelance journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.