After months of discussion, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland party last week formed a coalition with the All Russia regional movement headed by Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Tatarstan. Not just another design in Russia’s political kaleidoscope, this alliance may begin to define the shape of Russia after Yeltsin, a Russia in which the power that has drained away from the central government is gathered up again in the provinces.

The coalition aims to capture a majority of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, in December’s elections. That is a long shot, but, given the electoral mechanics, it is not out of the question. The Duma has 450 seats. Half of these are filled by elections in each of Russia’s 225 single-member electoral districts. The other 225 seats are apportioned among the registered political parties according to each party’s share of the national vote–except that a party must receive at least 5 percent of the vote to win any seats at all. The parties rank-order their candidates and must fill any seats they win with the highest-ranked candidates. The candidates in the top three places on each party list may compete only for the party-list seats, but lower-ranked candidates may also compete in the single-member districts.

Regional leaders–republic presidents like Shaimiev, oblast governors like Saratov’s Dmitry Ayatskov, and big-city mayors like Luzhkov himself–can use their patronage and control over local budgets and contracts to influence outcomes in the single-member districts. They have much less impact on national party lists. Indeed, many regional leaders would like to do away with party lists entirely and fill all Duma seats with representatives from single-member districts.

Short of such a constitutional change, for regional leaders an association with a nationwide party has great attraction. Luzhkov’s party, which from its inception has had close links to the regions and no ideology to inhibit alliances, is a good fit. Fatherland seems close to a deal to bring former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov on board to head its party list in December. Polls say that Primakov, who has not yet agreed to the deal, is the most trusted political figure in the country. Luzhkov will be running in December for re-election as mayor of Moscow; the last time out, he carried over 90 percent of the votes.

Up to now, personal rivalries have made coalitions difficult to form or sustain. With presidential elections less than a year away, the roster of possible candidates includes Luzhkov, Primakov, and regional leaders like Konstantin Titov of Samara and General Aleksandr Lebed of Krasnoyarsk (both of whom have their own political movements). Competition could shatter this latest alliance as well.

The Kremlin, however, isn’t waiting for rivalry to do the job. It is going after the Luzhkov-Shaimiev coalition directly and indirectly, hoping to co-opt it, weaken it or blow it apart. President Boris Yeltsin, who may then have had hopes of persuading All Russia and (now former) Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin to join forces, met with Shaimiev to discuss what Yeltsin’s spokesman called “the consolidation of our centrist strengths.” At the same time, the Kremlin group of insiders led by tycoon Boris Berezovsky is increasing financial and legal pressure on a key Luzhkov ally, the Media MOST group run by Vladimir Gusinsky. Editors of more than a dozen publications complained of Kremlin pressure in a open letter, and one of them–the editor of Kommersant, a respected daily acquired last month by interests apparently fronting for Berezovsky–was promptly fired.

The political in-fighting is likely to get much more violent in the next few months. Most of the key players, after all, earned merit badges in backstabbing and betrayal in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And the stakes are high-not just control of today’s enfeebled Russian government, but a chance to reassemble and reallocate state power in a new Russian Federation.