The Structure of Regional Politics in Russia

This issue of Russian Politics and Law continues some themes that we introduced in previous issues. The bulk of the articles begin where the previous issue on center–periphery relations left off, focusing on the periphery side of that equation to analyze how politics is conducted in Russia’s regions under the current centralizing regime. This is an issue that has not received adequate attention in the literature, which has traditionally focused either exclusively on central politics or at most on relations between the center and the regions. Most Russian studies of regional politics have been purely empirical efforts to describe key political events in a particular region. The strength of this set of articles is the authors’ explicit focus on comparative and theoretically based analysis.

In “The Dynamics of Subnational Authoritarianism (Russia in Comparative Perspective),” Vladimir Gelman places Russian regional politics in a comparative perspective. He begins by establishing a typology of subnational authoritarian regimes, based on a review of cases from around the world. This typology is based on two key variables—the extent to which nationwide parties and the centralized state apparatus have influence at the regional and local levels. Variation in these two factors produces three potential kinds of subnational authoritarianism. If the central state is strong, the result is labeled centralized subnational authoritarianism of either the bureaucratic (weak party influence) or party (strong party influence) varieties. If the central state is weak but parties are influential, the combination leads to decentralized subnational authoritarianism. If neither is strong, then subnational authoritarianism cannot develop.

In the second part of his article, Gelman applies this typology to the Russian case, arguing that over the last two decades Russia has swung from centralized party subnational authoritarianism to decentralized subnational authoritarianism and back again. The initial decentralization occurred as the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which weakened the central government and led to the transfer of various state powers to the regions. Gelman argues that the recentralization that occurred in the last decade was the result of a combination of the 1998 financial crisis, which demonstrated the need for Russia’s economic reintegration; the participation of most local elites on the losing side in the 1999 Duma elections, which weakened their political standing vis-à-vis the center; and the economic growth that took place during Putin’s presidency, which encouraged national corporations to push for the reduction of entry barriers to local markets. Gelman sees the newly reestablished centralized subnational authoritarianism as a fairly durable phenomenon that will break down only in the event of a nationwide democratization.

Rostislav Turovskii’s article, “Regional Political Regimes in Russia: Toward a Methodology of Analysis,” further develops the theoretical bases for a characterization of the political regimes found in Russia’s regions. Whereas Gelman situates his typology in Western literature on subnational political regimes, Turovskii begins with a review of previous Russian work on this subject. He then proposes his own three-dimensional model for the characterization of such regimes. The first dimension measures the regime’s formal institutional design and specifically whether the regime’s power structure is monopolistic or oligopolistic in character. The focus here is on formal institutional factors that determine the autonomy of regional leaders in relation to both federal representatives in the region and other local power centers.

The second dimension reflects the actual extent of regional leaders’ autonomy from the center, which in present-day Russia is at a relatively low level and does not vary much. The final dimension involves the regime’s level of democracy or authoritarianism. This involves an assessment of the extent to which opposition forces are able to influence regional politics and includes both open opponents of the regime and internal opposition within the governing elite. In conclusion, Turovskii argues that examining Russian regions according to these three dimensions is the best method for analyzing political life in Russia’s regions. He also makes a case for moving beyond rational choice approaches to the study of regional politics, arguing for the importance of institutional and ideological factors in determining political outcomes at the local level.

In “The Upper Echelon of the Russian North Caucasus: Regionally Specific Political and Sociocultural Characteristics,” an article written especially for this journal, Maksim Vas’kov takes a very different approach to studying regional governance. This article is an exercise in inductive reasoning, where the author uses the cases of the North Caucasus republics to examine the political and societal factors that push local leaders into certain governing strategies. He finds certain commonalities across the region, including that the combination of political influence and economic control ensures the preservation of members of the political elite in power. He finds that local elites largely lack adequate mechanisms to regulate conflicts both among rival factions within the elite and between the elite and its political opponents. This factor increases the regional leaders’ dependence on Moscow, with external arbitration often seen as the only way to solve disputes and prevent conflicts from becoming violent.

Vas’kov also finds a number of differences among the regional governors that affect how they govern, including their social background, extent of political experience in the Soviet and Yeltsin periods, generation to which they belong, and connection to regional political life prior to their appointment to the top position. These variables affect both the amount of political capital possessed by these leaders and the style with which they govern. Some try to balance among rival local clans, while others give all significant positions to members of one clan (usually their own). Some govern using the methods they learned in Soviet party schools, while others seek to adapt the methods they learned in running successful business enterprises prior to their entry into politics.

Overall, all three articles show the importance of combining the insight of theoretical thinking with a deep knowledge of empirical processes in the regions being studied.

Our final article, by Galina Zvereva, returns to the theme of one of our issues from 2009 on whether Russia can be considered a nation-state. In that issue, we presented four different views of how the ethnic and civic conceptions of Russia may be combined. In “What Will ‘We’ Be Called Now? Formulas of Collective Self-Identification in Contemporary Russia, Zvereva connects this intellectual debate to similar processes occurring in the political sphere. She discusses the trajectory of conceptions of the Russian nation in official government and ruling party documents from the early 1990s to the present day. She shows how efforts to create a multiethnic Russian national identity were balanced even within the ruling elite by opposing efforts to establish the Russian (russkii) ethnic group as the basis of Russian (rossiiskii) national identity. She concludes with a discussion of signs that the debate is gradually leading Russia’s leaders to a conception of national identity that in many ways resembles the Soviet conception of a Soviet multinational people (mnogonatsional’nyi sovetskii narod).

One thought on “The Structure of Regional Politics in Russia

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, March 2010 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

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