Local and Regional Politics in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

Having examined the state and future of Russia’s political system on a national level in the last two issues of Russian Politics and Law, the current issue turns to subnational politics. There have been numerous studies in recent years of the decline of Russian federalism in the aftermath of the Putin regime’s centralization drive. Local politics has received less attention but has faced a similar dynamic. This issue examines subnational politics at both the regional and the local levels.

The first two articles discuss changes inRussia’s federal structure. In “Russian Federalism as a ‘Dormant’ Institution,” Andrei Zakharov addresses the question of what will happen toRussia’s federal structure. He argues that under Putin, federalist structures largely stopped functioning, leading to the establishment of a “federation without federalism”—that is, a de facto unitary state that maintains the outward appearance of a federation. At the same time, the government has not sought to abolish the federal structure de jure because it fears the reaction of the ethnic minorities that make up 20 percent of the country’s population. Zakharov argues that although federal institutions are currently dormant, they will inevitably awaken at some point in the future, leading to a new turn of the parade of sovereignty/freezing of federalism cycle that will continue until the Russian elite learns to play by the rules of real federalism.

Alexander Kynev’s article, “Unattainable Symmetry: On the Results of the ‘Amalgamation’ of Regions of the Russian Federation,” addresses some of the steps taken by the current regime to eliminate real federalism in Russia. Specifically, he focuses on efforts to simplify the federation by merging most autonomous districts (okrugi) with nearby provinces (oblasti) and territories (krai). Kynev argues that despite the effort, the result has been not simplification but rather the introduction of additional complexity. The five mergers have produced at least three scenarios for determining the status of the former autonomous districts. In addition, several districts were not merged, leaving the old order partially in place as well. He argues that Russian leaders should embrace the diversity of their country’s federal structures rather than trying to eliminate it, since efforts at simplification are utopian and hopeless.

The other articles in this issue focus on Moscow’s efforts to reform local government structures. “Local Government in the Grip of the ‘Power Vertical,’” by Maksim Rubchenko and Vasilii Skalon, looks at the impact of the introduction of appointed city managers as a replacement for elected mayors in many major Russian cities in recent years. They argue that the new system, which was introduced despite the opposition of these cities’ inhabitants, has deprived local government of its remaining independence. The official goal in enacting this change is to improve city management by disconnecting it from politics. However, it is likely to result in conflict among the manager, the regional governor, and the head of the city council. The authors argue that the only way to truly fix the system of local government is to increase the percentage of tax revenues that go directly to local authorities, so that they have the money to address problems with infrastructure and other local concerns.

The remaining six articles in this issue are the results of a research project on “Power and Administration in Russia’s Large Cities.” This project is introduced in Vladimir Gelman and Sergei Ryzhenkov’s article, “Local Regimes in the Large Cities of Russia: Introduction to the Theme.” The project seeks to answer two main questions: (1) what are the parameters and characteristics of local regimes in Russia’s large cities? and (2) how have the economic, political, and institutional changes of the 1990s and the 2000s affected the present and future functioning of these regimes?

In this article, they present the four key findings of their analysis: (1) local political regimes depend primarily on the city’s geography and economic structure and position in the country; (2) the characteristics of a local regime change primarily as a result of political and institutional changes at the national level; (3) formal rules of the game are a façade for informal mechanisms for harmonizing interests among key players; and (4) the future evolution of local political regimes will depend largely on political changes at the federal level. The next five articles elaborate on specific aspects of these findings.

Vladimir Gelman’s “State Power, Governance, and Local Regimes in Russia: A Framework for Analysis,” describes the project’s analytical framework. He develops a typology of Russian urban regimes and traces their emergence and evolution in the 1990s and the 2000s. The typology consists of status quo regimes that are focused on the distribution of resources, development regimes that are focused on economic growth, and progressive regimes that are focused on controlling growth and improving the environment. In Russia, all three types tend to coexist, with status quo regimes dominating in small and medium-sized cities, while large cities are often dominated by development regimes that have to deal with a progressive opposition.

In “Local Regimes and the ‘Power Vertical,’” Sergei Ryzhenkov analyzes the links between the functioning of local regimes and the power vertical established by the central government in Moscow. He describes the power vertical as a system of rent distribution that provides resources to local agents in exchange for their political support. In other words, Ryzhenkov is describing a classic clientelist system that serves as the main bulwark of the Russian authoritarian state. The establishment of the power vertical and its extension to the local level is designed to minimize the possibility of conflict at the local level. For the long term, Ryzhenkov argues thatMoscowis gradually replacing rent payments with opportunities for local elites to receive income from private business. Their ability to successfully manage this transition will have a significant effect on the state’s long-term stability.

In their article on “Economic Actors and Local Regimes inRussia’s Large Cities,” Olga Bychkova and Vladimir Gelman create a typology of four possible patterns of interaction between economic actors and local governments and then apply this typology to the cases of Perm and Cherepovets. The four types of interaction depend on whether the state and business are each strong or weak. The authors describe the four types of state–business interaction and show how differences in these factors affect economic and political relations in specific cases. They argue that structural characteristics of local political regimes affect political relations in cities much more than political opportunities or the specific actions of local elites.

Elena Belokurova and Dmitrii Vorob’ev shift the focus from elites and state structure to the role in governance of public participation, and specifically of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In “Local Public Participation in Contemporary Russia,” they show that protests occur primarily in places that lack any effective mechanisms for public participation in policy formation, resulting in the adoption by local regimes of decisions that violate the rights and interests of particular social groups. They show that while NGOs play a role in local governance, they are fairly weak when compared to political elites and other state actors.

Finally, Nadezhda Borisova’s article (“Perm: A Local Regime in a Large Russian City”) analyzes the emergence and evolution of a pluralistic local regime in Perm in relation to developments at the regional and national levels, tracing its evolution from the 1990s to the present day. Borisova argues that the Perm example reinforces the project’s findings that the evolution of local regimes depends primarily on their structural characteristics, while changes in the regime occur primarily as a result of political and institutional changes on the national level. As a result, the future of local political regimes in Perm and throughout Russia is likely to depend on how political elites in Moscow choose to modify the current power vertical regime.

Given this prediction, and the high likelihood that change in the Russian political system will occur only gradually, it seems likely that the last decade’s trend toward the reduction of pluralism at the local and regional levels will continue for the next decade. The result will be an even greater divergence between local elites and the rest of the population residing inRussia’s cities and provinces.

One thought on “Local and Regional Politics in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

  1. Pingback: Russian Politics and Law, July 2011 Table of Contents « Russian Military Reform

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