Center–Periphery Relations After Ten Years of Centralization

In the 1990s the dominant paradigm that governed studies of center- periphery relations in Russia focused on the weakness of the central state and the perception that it might result in the breakup of the Russian Federation, much as state weakness in the late Gorbachev period led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Then Vladimir Putin became president and started a cycle of centralization. Just as quickly, analysts turned to the question of whether Russia was now too centralized. They asked whether a country as physically large and sparsely populated as Russia could be governed as a unitary state, without devolving much if any authority to the regions.

This collection of articles showcases the work of Russian scholars who avoid both extremes, focusing instead on examining the processes through which center–periphery relations have actually worked in Russia.

In “Cycles of Decentralization in the Post-Soviet Space” Aleksandr Libman places this cycle of decentralization followed by recentralization in a comparative context, by looking at how similar processes played out in the other states that were formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He points out the parallel nature of decentralization processes in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. In all these countries, regional elites capitalized on central weakness to informally take over many powers that were formally assigned to the center. This process was taken to its extreme in Tajikistan, leading to civil war between competing regional elites after the almost total collapse of the center. A separate set of processes occurred in Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Georgia, where ethnically based regional separatism was the most powerful decentralizing force in the first years of independence. Of the post-Soviet republics, only Armenia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan avoided the informal decentralization cycle. (The author does not mention the Baltic states in his analysis.)

In all these countries, the end of the economic disaster of the 1990s and the resumption of economic growth in the last decade allowed central authorities to renege on the informal understandings they (or their predecessors) had reached with regional elites when the center was weak. Since the division of powers between center and periphery had not been formalized, recentralization was a fairly straightforward matter in most of these countries. As it became clear that the balance of power had significantly shifted toward the center, regional leaders by and large did not resist the centralizing efforts emanated from the capitals. The one exception was Kyrgyzstan, where elites in the capital were not strong enough to carry out the centralization effort and were removed by one set of regional elites in the Tulip Revolution of 2005.

With Libman having discussed the origins of the current pattern of center–periphery relations in the post-Soviet region, Alla Chirikova examines how regional elites have adapted to the newly centralized environment. In “Regional Elites in Contemporary Russia: Conceptual Discussions and Political Practice,” she begins with an extended discussion of how to think about political elites and how they might act in the context of the ongoing recentralization. The three paths she considers include unconditional subordination, bargaining, and inertia. Having laid out this theoretical framework, Chirikova then discusses perceptions of the recentralization among elites, based on in-depth interviews and a survey she conducted in 2004–6. She finds that the establishment of the power vertical by President Putin quickly turned “the relationship between center and regions from one filled with conflict to one of hierarchical co-subordination.” She argues that protest against Putin’s centralization drive on the part of regional elites has been muted because they have essentially been bought off by an increase in central financing. They have traded their political resources in favor of economic infusions from the center.

As a result, Chirikova argues that both regional development and regional political life are now largely dependent on orders from the Kremlin. This provides much sought-after stability for the Kremlin, but at the expense of the country’s long-term political development. She finds that the overcentralization of the Russian state is likely to make it more fragile for the long term.

In her second article, “The Power Vertical in the Assessments of Regional Elites: The Dynamics of Change,” Chirikova further develops her analysis, this time with a focus on changes in regional elites’ perceptions of centralization over time. The findings are based on the same set of surveys, conducted in Yaroslavl, Perm, and Sverdlovsk in 2004 and in Tatarstan, Stavropol, and Sverdlovsk in 2006. She finds that in 2004, most regional elites were worried about the effect of centralization, seeing an increase in distance between central and regional authorities, a decrease in responsiveness of central authorities in combination with an increase in their responsibilities, a decline in horizontal contacts among regions, and a general increase in chaos in the system of governance.

By 2006 members of the regional elite had gotten used to the new system of power and were less likely to express negative sentiments about it. Although they worried about its potential instability, they saw the power vertical as necessary in the present environment and better suited to a period of economic and political transformation than the system that preceded it. At the same time, they worried about the negative impact of this system on recruitment of new generations into the political elite. Overall, as Chirikova notes, regional elites preferred the security of a paternalistic system to the combination of greater opportunities and a higher level of uncertainty present in a democratic market-based system. As a result, she argues that at the present time Russian governors have been essentially turned into policy coordinators responsible for implementing orders sent from Moscow. While this is a big step down from their previous positions, it has allowed many of them to stay in power longer than the previous two-term maximum.

The extent to which the new political system has allowed for turnover among regional governors is the subject of Rostislav Turovskii’s “How Russian Governors Are Appointed: Inertia and Radicalism in Central Policy.” On the basis of an analysis of all gubernatorial appointments made in 2005–8, the author argues that the goals of central authorities have changed over time. Initially, President Putin sought simply to change the status of the governors as quickly as possible. To this end, most previously elected governors asked the president to appoint them to their position prior to the end of their term. Almost all these governors were reappointed. Over time, this tendency has shifted, so that by 2008 most governors whose term was expiring were replaced with new people. Furthermore, a number of governors were replaced prior to the end of their terms, as they had resigned or were declared to have lost the confidence of the president.

Overall, the trends outlined by Turovskii show that the central administration has gradually gained confidence in its ability to replace regional governors with their preferred candidates without causing political instability in the affected region. Furthermore, in many cases, Moscow is now replacing governors with outsiders, politicians (or administrators) who have little to no experience in the region they are being asked to govern. Turovskii notes that at the time of writing, thirteen governors belonged to this category. Considering that only thirty-three regions had had new governors appointed since 2005, this represents a fairly high percentage. Despite these changes, Turovskii notes that regional political elites have by and large remained passive, adapting to the new governors without any noticeable protest.

The final article in this issue examines the one set of circumstances in recent years when regionally based protests achieved a significant amount of success. In “The Russian Far East in a State of Suspension: Between the ‘Global Economy’ and ‘State Tutelage,’ ” L.E. Bliakher and L.A. Vasil’eva analyze the politics of this region in the context of a tendency for the central government to leave the Far East to its own devices whenever Russia enters a period of political or economic crisis. The authors note that in the 1990s Moscow exercised very little control over this region, allowing it to subsist largely on the sale of its natural resources and a semilegal international petty-trade business with its neighbors to the south and east. By contrast, as the Russian economy began to revive after 1999, central elites increasingly sought to control economic development and political life in the region. The rapidly strengthening state was fairly successful at eliminating semilegal economic activity by increasing trade barriers. As long as the reduction in economic opportunities was accompanied with fairly generous financing from the center, the inhabitants of the region were willing to go along.

The situation became unstable in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when generous payments ceased. At the same time, central authorities hoping to protect the domestic auto industry increased restrictions on the import of foreign automobiles. Given that this was the last economic sector where inhabitants of the region were able to make money outside the state sector, this led to public protests. These protests showed the weakness of the centralized system of government, which is unable to take into account the specific conditions in outlying regions. Together with the tendency of local administrators to pass all decision making to Moscow, this centralization increases the fragility of the entire political system.

Altogether, these articles show that the cycle of decentralization and recentralization that took place in Russia over the last twenty years is not unique. It parallels events both in Russia’s past history and in other parts of the region. At the same time, the authors in this collection argue that even as members of the regional elite are adapting to the new system of center–periphery relations, it has increased the vulnerability of the country’s political system as a whole to future political and economic shocks.

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