Volume 48 Number 2 / March-April 2010
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).
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.