Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 18

Sverdlovsk Governor’s Election May Prove to Benefit Yeltsin After All

by James Voorhees*

The victory of Eduard Rossel in the gubernatorial election inthe Sverdlovsk Oblast came as a surprise to many observers inthe West, and has been interpreted as a defeat for both Yeltsinand Chernomyrdin. But the surprise was unwarranted and the outcomemay, in fact, have been privately welcomed by Yeltsin. Although Rossel probably will be an independent governor, with an agendawhich may complicate the central government’s relations with theregions, his election may help Yeltsin increase his waning popularityin his native region.

In 1991, Rossel was appointed governor of Sverdlovsk by Yeltsin.Two years later he was fired after he tried to gain for the oblastthe status and powers of a republic. Like many governors, Rossel believed that the ethnically-based republics had higher statusand more control over their budgets and taxes than the other componentsof the Russian Federation. In July 1993, armed with the resultsof a referendum that showed strong popular support for upgradingthe status of Sverdlovsk, the regional soviet declared the birthof the "Urals Republic." In September, as the strugglebetween Yeltsin and the parliament came to a head, neighboringregions declared themselves ready to unite within the Urals Republic. Yeltsin said he feared that this development might threaten theunity of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin dissolved the Sverdlovsksoviet and fired Rossel.

Rossel’s political exile lasted only a matter of hours. The dayafter he was fired, he was elected president of the Urals Associationat a meeting attended by at least two oblast governors. The nextmonth, Rossel was elected by the voters of Sverdlovsk to the FederationCouncil, Russia’s upper legislative chamber. The next spring,he was elected to the new oblast Duma and made speaker.

Rossel pushed the oblast Duma to set a date for a new gubernatorialelection, a move opposed by Rossel’s replacement as governor,Aleksei Strakhov. A new election would also contravene a decree(of dubious constitutionality) which Yeltsin had issued lastOctober, in which he forbade regions to elect their governorswithout presidential approval. Yeltsin’s decree seems to havebeen a response to an election in the Maritime Kray, which wasto have taken place a few days later. Yeltsin’s dictate strippedfrom the troublesome governor of the Maritime Kray, Yevgeny Nazdratenko,the opportunity to gain legitimacy and a measure of politicalindependence from Yeltsin.

However in Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin approved the elections and therebygave Rossel the chance to win that which he had denied to Nazdratenko.By defeating Yeltsin’s appointee, Rossel could now return to thegovernorship with the authority of a popular mandate.

Izvestiya found the logic behind this to be incomprehensible,but Yeltsin’s rationale was probably rooted in his own decliningpopularity on the eve of the coming presidential campaign, andin Yeltsin’s complex relationship with Rossel, who has been bothfriend and foe to the president. Yeltsin may have approved thegubernatorial election as a way to regain popularity by allowingthe voters to reverse the unpopular decision to dismiss Rossel. Of course this logic holds up only if Yeltsin believed that hecould count on the new governor to provide him with solid supportwithin the oblast. He was assured of such support from Strakhov,but Strakhov’s popularity was in doubt and Rossel’s was not. Moreover,Strakhov had never faced the electorate; Rossel had won electionstwice before.

Yeltsin seems to have gambled that he could make Rossel an allyonce again. In truth, they had been on the same side in Russianpolitical battles more often than not. After appointing him governorof Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin treated Rossel as something of a favorite,giving him special powers to carry out an accelerated privatizationprogram in early 1992. In October 1993, Sverdlovsk provided firmsupport for Yeltsin against the parliament. It was one of thefew regions in which both the executive and legislative branchessupported Yeltsin.

In November 1994, Yeltsin gave his approval to the oblast charterpassed by the oblast Duma, a decision which foreshadowed his approvalof the gubernatorial election. Strakhov opposed the charter, justas he opposed the election. The charter gave the Duma broad powers,including the right to confirm the chairman of the oblast governmentand the heads of local administration whom the governor appointed.But Rossel was able to get Yeltsin’s approval for the charter,according to Kommersant-Daily, by "elbowing his wayinto Yeltsin’s reception room." He convinced Yeltsin notonly that the charter was constitutional and so should be approved,but he got Yeltsin’s approval–reversed in January–for gubernatorialelections. It is likely that a deal was struck in which Yeltsinagreed to permit the elections if Rossel gave up the idea of makingSverdlovsk a republic.

With this history, it is not unlikely that Rossel will put hispopularity at the service of Yeltsin in the coming elections.Rossel will almost certainly oppose Chernomyrdin, whose "Russiais Our Home" party gave strong support to Strakhov, and hewill probably oppose Moscow-centered candidates of the left andright who seek to strengthen the central government at the expenseof the regions.

Sverdlovsk will not long remain the only oblast to elect itsgovernor. Nizhny Novgorod will hold its election in December,and Perm’s Legislative Assembly passed a law on electing its governor.This was vetoed by the current governor, but the veto is likelyto be overridden. It remains to be seen whether Yeltsin will permitthe election to take place.

In Rossel’s statement to Itar-Tass on his inauguration day, hestressed that he will seek equality among the components of theFederation, finding that equality in the constitution, but notin practice. He is likely to use both his governorship and hisseat in the Federation Council to reopen this issue, which hasbeen dormant since he was fired. In fact, differences in the statusand power of the different components of the Federation remain,and they may be widening as ethnically-based republics such asSakha and Kabardino-Balkariya sign treaties similar to that signedby Tatarstan last year. His proposal to eliminate ethnically-basedrepublics entirely by organizing the Federation on a territorialbasis by recreating the guberniyas of the Tsarist era makes himthe unlikely soulmate of both Deputy Prime Minister Shakhrai andZhirinovsky, who have made similar proposals. Rossel is also likelyto continue to try to expand the power of the regions vis-à-visthe central government.

The Sverdlovsk elections should serve as a reminder, if anyoneneeds it, that neither incumbency nor money ensures politicalvictory, even in Russia. "Russia is Our Home" gave strongsupport to Strakhov, who was able to spend three times as muchmoney as Rossel, but to no avail. Chernomyrdin’s party may havethe support of the powerful, but they will have to work harderto get the votes they need to remain powerful. The election shouldalso be a reminder that Chernomyrdin’s interests are not necessarilyYeltsin’s. The prime minister lost; it is not clear that thepresident did.

*James Voorhees works as a consultant to the CongressionalResearch Service. The views presented here are his own.