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Riding Russia's Centrifuge

The world's well-being still depends to a degree on what happens in Russia, even though that country is now more bearskin than bear.

Its economy may be in deep hibernation, but the former superpower still straddles two continents, commands a hefty share of mineral wealth, wields a UN veto, and most important, still has nuclear teeth.

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If mischief prone, Russia can sell weapons of mass destruction to a rogue regime. And its demoralized military was still able to kick NATO in the shins by taking over Kosovo's airport.

From the time of the czars to the Soviet Union, the West has learned to pay due respect to Moscow, while keeping track of who rules the Kremlin - and who might rule it someday. But who reigns in Moscow these days is becoming less and less important. And the West has not yet caught on.

Recent political maneuvers only reveal the weakness of Russia's center. Since 1996, when regional governors were first elected, power has flowed away from the Kremlin. The economic crisis only accelerates that trend.

The leaders of Russia's 89 regions and territories are tapping directly into the global economy and telecommunications. Vladivostok in the Far East may soon place more phone calls to Japan or China than back to Moscow, seven time zones away.

The West would do well to reduce its Kremlin watching and caressing and put more of its financial and political eggs in the hinterlands' baskets.

To be sure, President Boris Yeltsin and his rivals are engaged in an intense struggle over who will succeed him after next summer's presidential election. They're also battling over who will win control of the lower house of parliament this December.

But look at Mr. Yeltsin's latest choice for prime minister, a former KGB spy and security chief named Vladimir Putin. His credentials include a recent stint as head of the department that manages Moscow's relations with the regions.

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His main job now may well be to foil a new anti-Yeltsin alliance between the Fatherland Party, led by Moscow's powerful mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and a grouping of regional leaders called All Russia.

It is the governors who are critical in getting out the vote for national candidates. They already control half of the upper house, the Federation Council, which recently defied Yeltsin by not firing the state prosecutor.

The governors' All Russia and other such groups offer a better chance for Russia to reform its economy and form a true federation.

They have exploited Moscow's weakness and the rivalry between business oligarchs to conduct their own economic and, sometimes, foreign policy. In many cases, the regions have served as laboratories for reform. Others have become private fiefdoms, a throwback to feudal days.

Moscow can still wield budget influence over the regions, but its levers of coercion and its ability to instill fear are seriously eroded. And Yeltsin's politics have left Russians cynical.

The regional leaders are not at full power yet, but if they work together - with help from the West - they might create a Russian bear that the world can live with.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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