MOSCOW — Frustrated by disorder and hardship, Russians are asking whether the time has come to rein in democracy and effectively reinstate the Soviet system of strict, centralized state control.
Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov raised the issue this week by proposing that the constitution be amended to end the free election of governors and suggesting that they instead be appointed by the president.
The relationship between the Kremlin and the regions should be "a solid line, not a dotted line," he said.
Primakov's proposal would significantly curtail democracy in Russia. But, so far, few are speaking out against it.
"I am deeply convinced that until there is a solid and reliable 'vertical' power structure in Russia, the country will keep eking out a miserable existence," said Dmitri F. Ayatskov, the governor of the Saratov region, who is generally considered liberal and pro-Western--and whose power would be curtailed under the proposal.
"It must become an ironclad rule that all governors . . . be accountable to their superiors, the president and prime minister," Ayatskov said. "Without this, all attempts to bring order to Russia will be futile."
Although the idea of restoring order has appeal here, some analysts see Primakov's proposal as part of an emerging pattern of moves apparently designed to consolidate his own power and prepare for a possible presidential bid.
For instance, last month Primakov proposed a kind of truce with the Communist-controlled lower house of parliament under which President Boris N. Yeltsin would pledge not to dismiss the prime minister until the next presidential election, in June 2000. In effect, that would have ensured Primakov's job for the foreseeable future.
"Primakov is securing his grip on executive power, and he doesn't hesitate to plainly explain what he needs that for," said Sergei A. Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies. "Primakov is once again saying loudly, 'I am for order in this country, and all my actions serve this purpose.' "
Surprisingly, one of the most critical public reactions to Primakov's proposal came from Yeltsin's spokesman, but it was essentially equivocal.
"Undoubtedly the vertical of state power needs to be strengthened," spokesman Dmitri D. Yakushkin said at a Kremlin briefing. "On the other hand, free elections . . . constitute an achievement for democracy that is hard to renounce and must not be renounced."
The Kremlin has long worried about the increasing independence of Russia's 89 governors, who tend to rule their republics and regions like fiefdoms, some more unruly than others. Moscow has also complained that one reason so few state workers are paid on time is that governors mishandle federal funds.
Yeltsin has periodically tried various ways of tightening control, including instating former KGB officers in top oversight positions. Yet those moves appear to have had little effect.
"There's significant concern here that the center is collapsing and the regions are becoming more self-interested," said Alan Rousso, Moscow director of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace.
He noted that in Russia's still-primitive political system more democracy effectively means more instability, saying: "In this sense, reinforcing the federal system and increasing stability might be seen as a positive development."
And so far, Russians are responding positively and giving Primakov's leadership high marks. In political polls, he outranks all other leaders for "trustworthiness."
When it comes to potential presidential candidates, he has pulled even with Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, who has topped the polls consistently for years.
More ominously for the Communists, a poll by the respected Public Opinion Foundation this month showed that in one-on-one pairings between likely candidates, Primakov defeated four top rivals, including Zyuganov.
Yet Primakov has insisted repeatedly that he has no interest in becoming president. In a meeting with Yeltsin on Thursday, he said he is "sick of all the speculation."
For his part, Yeltsin asserted once again that he has no intention of stepping down and will remain in office until his term expires.
"We have two strong positions," Yeltsin said as Primakov stood by his side in front of the cameras. "I will work until the 2000 elections. And the prime minister's position is that he will work as premier until the election of a new president."
The president, whose health has appeared particularly fragile in recent months, looked to be in good spirits but spoke slowly and slightly slurred some words.
Spokesman Yakushkin insisted this week that Yeltsin is in fine form and has completed his program of rehabilitation for a bleeding ulcer--the latest in a long series of treatments that has included a quintuple bypass heart operation.