To the Editor:
Sam Nunn and Adam N. Stulberg claim that Russian regions wield significant influence over Russia's policymaking ("The Many Faces of Modern Russia," March/April 2000). In fact, despite the regions' ubiquitous foreign activities, regional leaders have little say in setting the country's foreign policy.
One reason why regions have so little leverage is the nature of the Russian Federation: 89 relatively small members, each with an average population of 1.9 million. This fragmentation significantly hampers collective action, especially given the vast disparities in economic development among the regions. Governors do not "cultivate horizontal ties between regions, independent of Moscow," as Nunn and Stulberg claim. They spend their time in Moscow lobbying central agencies for parochial concerns instead of building relationships with each other or strengthening the Federation Council as an institution. Consequently, although the Federation Council is vested with some authority over foreign policy issues, it virtually never opposes the federal position. Even when Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov challenged the center's policy toward Ukraine from the council's pulpit, he found little support among his peers, and the government's policy passed overwhelmingly. Nunn and Stulberg's assertion that "the Federation Council gives regional leaders an important venue to act collectively and defend local interests in the making of Russian foreign policy" is largely baseless.
Another reason for the regions' weak role in foreign policy is the fragmentation of Russia's foreign policy process among various actors, mostly rival federal agencies (the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, etc.), but also powerful nonstate actors. These include, most crucially, the oil, gas, and electricity monopolies (like Gazprom, Lukoil, and United Energy Systems), which carry considerable weight in Moscow because of their large contribution to federal coffers. This is why these companies can promote their own foreign policy agenda and even use their extensive pipeline networks as instruments of Russia's foreign policy toward the resource-dependent former Soviet states. Russian regions wishing to influence actual foreign policy usually ally with these giants, jumping on their policy bandwagon and, at times, serving as those companies' puppets.
Russian regions have become much more visible on the international scene as the governors have begun promoting investment and trade opportunities in their districts with Moscow's blessing. But few regions attract serious foreign investors. The very few regions that issued Eurobonds in 1998 defaulted along with the federal government. As in the case of foreign investment, Moscow generally backs regions when their foreign policy initiatives fall in line with Russia's interests.
When the regions challenge Moscow on foreign policy, the center usually prevails. Nunn and Stulberg cite Primorski Krai's active opposition to the Russia-China border treaty but forget to mention that despite the region's militant campaign, Moscow sharply rebuked the krai's governor for exceeding his authority and proceeded with border delineation as scheduled. Similarly, the Foreign Ministry explicitly condemned the Turkic regions that signed a resolution recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. (Realizing that this incident resulted not from a malicious intention to embarrass Moscow but from a lack of knowledge of the nuances of Russian foreign policy, the Foreign Ministry has instituted training courses for regional officials to teach them where Moscow stands on various international issues.) Often what looks like separatist pronouncements are in fact empty posturing with no follow-up, like the proclamation by Khakassia in August 1998 that it would not pay federal taxes in the face of the financial crisis.
Most regional leaders are pragmatic opportunists concerned with increasing their own political power. They realize that their dependence on federal money will persist in the foreseeable future, since foreign investment and assistance have so far failed to replace their ties to Moscow. Consequently, in their pursuit of foreign policy, the regions have been mostly concerned with economic issues and have steered away from sensitive political questions that might result in a confrontation with the center.
Research Associate, EastWest Institute