Yeltsin's Absentee Rule Raises Specter of a 'Failed State'
By David Hoffman
But the flag has not flown much lately; Yeltsin, suffering from a bleeding ulcer, has come to the Kremlin only sporadically. Although he was back at work today, his prolonged absences are contributing to what some prominent analysts believe is a long slide toward the collapse of central authority in Russia and perhaps the crumbling of Russia as a federation.
Russians have long feared the country would shatter in a violent crack-up, ignited by secessionist movements in its diverse regions. But a different model is now gaining currency among political and economic analysts who say Russia is in imminent danger of becoming a "failed state," not breaking into pieces as the Soviet Union did, but simply ceasing to function as a cohesive federal government.
Many Russian politicians and political analysts say the debasement of Moscow's authority -- possibly leading to a long stagnation and drift in which no one rules -- threatens to bring its own special dangers, opening the doors to even more corruption and lawlessness, weapons proliferation, health hazards and environmental pollution.
If Russia becomes a failed state, the risks are that individual regions and parts of Russian society will essentially go their own way -- making it difficult, for example, for Russia to control factories making missile parts, or to cope with such problems as disease outbreaks or massive piracy of intellectual property.
Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has become so concerned about the ebbing power of the central government that he suggested recently that Russia should scrap the popular election of governors, one of the major gains of the country's young democracy. Instead, Primakov proposed that regional chieftains answer directly to the Kremlin, as they did in Soviet days -- which would require rewriting the constitution. Primakov lamented that the Kremlin's chain of command over the country is "not a solid line" but rather "a vertical broken line -- broken."
Moscow's once all-powerful authority had been eroding for years, even before the break-up of the Soviet Union. But in recent months, several factors seemed to add to the disarray. Hobbled by economic decline, the government has become dysfunctional in some of its core responsibilities, including such pillars of central authority as the military, the courts and tax collection. Moreover, a political vacuum at the top -- the president ill, his prime minister struggling to hold together an unwieldy coalition cabinet -- has left Russia rudderless and thrust problems on often unprepared regional bosses.
The deterioration of Kremlin power could be difficult if not impossible to reverse; Russia has become an anything-goes, chaotically libertarian society. Meanwhile, the central government has crumbled from within: In everything from law enforcement to the military, from public health to scientific research, Russia's national institutions and agencies are a bare shadow of earlier years. Some of Yeltsin's lieutenants have tried in vain to reassert the might of the center, such as an attempt two years ago by deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais to use police tactics to force major companies to pay taxes. It flopped. As a result of government weakness, many analysts say they expect that Yeltsin will be succeeded by a leader more inclined to resort to authoritarianism.
The Kremlin's troubles have set off fresh alarms here. Sergei Karaganov -- deputy director of the Institute of Europe and chairman of the Council on Defense and Foreign Policy, a group of Russian business and political leaders -- said the ebb of central authority is becoming so acute that the Kremlin might as well not worry about setting economic policy.
Karaganov said Yeltsin no longer projects any meaningful clout from above, and Russians no longer trust their government from below, since devaluation of the ruble last year brought on the country's most serious economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"I don't think there can be any economic policy," he said in an interview. "It's useless to have any economic policy in a situation where there is political paralysis spreading through the whole body. There are two sicknesses. One is the president, which paralyzes greatly the whole body, and the second is the fact that the population mistrusts the government greatly."
"We are experiencing a rapid deterioration of the government," he said. "You see it in hundreds of small episodes. The military is unable to pay at all, so the local governments pay the soldiers. Until recently, there was a complete stoppage of payment of funds to the courts. Imagine what that means."
Thomas E. Graham, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. diplomat here, suggested recently that Russia may turn into a failed state because of the weakness in Moscow. "For the first extended period in modern Russian history," he said, "the center is neither feared nor respected."
Moscow "no longer controls the political and economic situation," he added. "It no longer reliably wields power and authority, as it has traditionally, through the control of the institutions of coercion, the regulation of economic activity and the ability to command the loyalty of, or instill fear in, the people."
Sergei Alexashenko, former first deputy head of Russia's Central Bank, said Russian institutions under democracy are "obviously weak" and "never managed to function properly." He added, "This applies to the institutions of power, the parliament and the government, to the 'power ministries' -- the army and law enforcement bodies, to economic structures." The economic crisis, he said, is largely rooted in the "inability of the state to perform one of its prime functions, tax collection."
The deterioration of Kremlin power was a chief topic at last week's meeting of Karaganov's defense and foreign policy council. A report prepared by a panel he headed warned that Russia is falling apart -- a familiar theme, but the report struck an urgent tone, calling on the ailing Yeltsin to step down to make way for Primakov.
"The president demonstrates such an obvious inability to control things that it raises doubt about the expediency of the institution of the presidency in its present form," the report said. "Mere bursts of activity do not count."
But the council was divided on whether Yeltsin should quit. Some questioned whether his premature resignation would help or hurt, and Primakov has pointedly insisted that Yeltsin must complete his term.
Within the council, few disagreed with the report's diagnosis that Russian power is rotting from within. "Actually, the process of slow disintegration is already underway," the report said, adding that such decay may not wreck Russia as a sovereign state -- just corrode central authority. The document recalled a similar process in China after the 1911 revolution, which gave rise to independent territories. "Today, a number of African states, like Angola, Somalia and others are in the process of factual disintegration, while formally retaining their integrity."
For their part, Yeltsin and Primakov made a televised effort today to persuade Russians that the president is here to stay. "My position," Yeltsin declared, is "I work until the elections in the year 2000. The position of the prime minister: He works as prime minister until the presidential elections." Primakov, who has denied he is a candidate for president, said everyone should stop speculating.
The Kremlin has tried to arrest the decline of its influence, negotiating separate power-sharing arrangements with more than 40 of the country's 89 regions that gave them various degrees of autonomy. But the weakness in Moscow has also thrust new burdens on the regions. For example, the council noted, regional governments are now provisioning army troops and national police units, as well as state prosecutors and courts -- all of which it said "should remain" in the hands of the federal authorities.
The erosion of central authority is also a slow and sometimes uncertain tug-of-war with the regions. In December, for instance, the president of the Russian region of Ingushetia issued a decree calling for a referendum giving it new powers, including the right to appoint its own police chiefs, legalize bride kidnapping, allow residents to carry daggers and permit the republic's president, Ruslan Aushev, to pardon those involved in vendetta killings. The Kremlin objected and vowed to block the referendum. Both sides have now negotiated a compromise: Aushev dropped the referendum idea, and the Kremlin agreed to share powers with him in law enforcement and judicial matters.
Steven L. Solnick, a political scientist at Columbia University, said the Russian government is becoming dysfunctional. "At the federal level, you have a state that can't do fundamental things a state is supposed to do -- national defense, a stable currency and a common internal market."
Solnick said that Russia is knotted by power struggles among financial clans, regions and the giant monopoly companies, among others. "These are intertwined in ways that make it difficult to establish a clear flow of power. What we have been expecting is that this is transitional, that someone will emerge in charge."
But, he added, "that may be a faulty assumption." Already, he said, the regions and Moscow are at a stalemate. "The center can't attempt to impose its will because it knows it can't. The only thing that is worse is to try hard to get your way -- and fail. Then everyone knows the center has imploded."
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