Russian Politics and Law, March 2013 Table of Contents

Volume 51 Number 2 / March-April 2013 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com/link.asp?id=U3W2355N2437.

This issue contains:

Civil Society in Russian Politics: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Quo Vadis?: Prospects for Establishing Civil Society in Russia. A Round-Table Discussion Hosted by Polis  p. 6
Mass Protests in the Context of the Russian Power Regime  p. 77
Anton N. Oleinik

Civil Society in Russian Politics: Editor’s Introduction

In the aftermath of the public protests that accompanied the 2011–12 Russian electoral season, the topic of civil society in Russia returned to a level of prominence it had not had in Russia since the immediate aftermath of the period of mass protest that brought down the Soviet government in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. While many analysts had for years written about the unusually quiescent nature of Russian society, the emergence of mass public demonstrations against an entrenched political regime led some scholars to reevaluate their models of the political behavior of Russian citizens.

Most of the issue comprises the presentations made at a roundtable held by the journal Polis. The roundtable, titled “Quo Vadis? Prospects for Establishing Civil Society in Russia,” shows that there is no consensus on the role and functioning of civil society in present-day Russia, much less on its future prospects, among leading Russian academics. Some of the speakers see civil society as emerging from the organizations that have sought to protect and institutionalize Russians’ political rights over the last two decades. Others argue that these organizations are inherently political and therefore cannot be the basis for a true civil society. As one speaker notes, protests cannot be taken as a sign of the maturation of civil society. Supporters of this viewpoint look instead to various nonpolitical social organizations, including ones focused on establishing organizations that help Russian citizens achieve their material, spiritual, and social needs.

The speakers also disagree on the state’s role in developing civil society in Russia. Supporters of the political point of view primarily see the state as an opponent of efforts to build Russian civil society. Others argue that in present-day Russia, civil society cannot be developed without state involvement. While there are many nuances to the argument, the critical disagreement can be summarized in the debate over whether civil society can function successfully only if social actors and the state cooperate in its development or, on the contrary, if its development requires society to battle against a largely authoritarian state to create space for public political activity. The roundtable participants do not resolve this dispute, which also remains at the heart of divisions among different political currents within the Russian Federation.

In “Mass Protests in the Context of the Russian Power Regime,” Anton Oleinik interprets the mass protests in Russia in late 2011 and early 2012 as a reaction to the prevalence of a special model of power relationships in Russia. He argues that dissatisfaction with the absence of feedback in relations between the state and society played a critical role in spawning the protests, utilizing survey data that shows that this reason was given by more than half of all protest participants as a cause of their participation in a critical December 2011 demonstration, while the more specific reason of indignation about voter fraud (also an indicator of a lack of equitable relations between state and society) was cited by almost three-quarters of respondents.

Oleinik discusses scenarios in which the mass protests are a first step toward the transition from the existing equilibrium of the Russian power regime to a new democratic equilibrium regime, placing an emphasis on two tasks. The first is the need to reform municipal and regional governance, which could act as a school for the next generation of officials, who could transfer their experience to the central level as they rise in the ranks. The second is the need to democratize the functioning of universities, especially those that train members of the future governing elite. As with local administration, the educational institutions could act as training grounds for the next generation of government officials, inculcating democratic values that they would in turn enshrine in state institutions during their subsequent careers.

Since these articles were published in mid-2012, the Russian protest movement has visibly lost steam. Vladimir Putin’s regime not only seems strongly entrenched but has initiated a crackdown on independent nongovernmental organizations that has made it increasingly difficult for societal organizations seeking to build civil society to function. As a result, it may be that in the short term, collaboration with the state or withdrawal from political engagement may be the only ways for independent civil society organizations to survive. The longer term offers a much wider array of possibilities, as the gradual emergence of a true middle class in Russia’s larger cities augurs well for the possibility of the gradual development of preconditions for the development of a civic culture in Russia that may lead Russian citizens to create boundaries for state power.

Problems of Post-Communism, November 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 59 Number 6 / November-December 2012 of Problems of Post-Communism is now available on the ME Sharpe web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com.

This issue contains:

The 2012 Political Reform in Russia: The Interplay of Liberalizing Concessions and Authoritarian Corrections  p. 3
Grigorii V. Golosov
Modernization and Historical Memory in Russia: Two Sides of the Same Coin  p. 15
Miguel Vázquez Liñán
Reforming Post-Communist Welfare States: Family Policy in Poland, Hungary, and Romania Since 2000  p. 27
Tomasz Inglot, Dorottya Szikra, Cristina Raţ
Civil Society with Chinese Characteristics?: An Examination of China’s Urban Homeowners’ Committees and Movements  p. 50
Ngeow Chow Bing
A Salute to Ronald Linden, Outgoing Associate Editor of Problems of Post-Communism and a Welcome to Sherrill Stroschein, Incoming Associate Editor of Problems of Post-Communism  p. 64
Dmitry Gorenburg, Editor

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction

This issue of Russian Politics and Law considers how the political system functions in Russia, focusing especially on the differences between formal rules and informal practices. The issue starts with a discussion of the personalities involved in running the Russian political system. In “Formats of Russian State Power,” Ol_’ga Kryshtanovskaia, one of the leading experts on Russian political elites, compares the power resources at the disposal of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. She shows that the two leaders divided responsibilities between themselves in a way that does not match the constitutional division of power between the president and the prime minister. Instead, “the siloviki, the economy, parliament, the regions, and the party have been left to Putin, while Medvedev is responsible for the formal performance of constitutional obligations, the courts, the fight against corruption, and the training of a personnel reserve.”

The comparison of resources available to the two leaders reveals that after two years in power, Medvedev had largely failed to develop his own political team and remained dependent on Putin. By examining the resources available to both members of the ruling tandem in late 2009, Kryshtanovskaia correctly forecast Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. However, she does not think that the Medvedev presidency will pass without consequences for Russia’s political system. In her conclusion, she discusses the possibility that the creation of the Putin–Medvedev tandem has changed the Russian political game, setting the stage for ongoing shifts between the president and the prime minister in future election cycles.

Grigorii Golosov’s article, “Problems of the Russian Electoral System,” moves the discussion to the sphere of institutional rules of the game. The author analyzes how the Russian electoral system has evolved since 1993, showing how electoral institutions that are commonly used by democratic states around the world have been distorted to eliminate their democratic potential. He enumerates a list of problems withRussia’s electoral system, beginning with the single national electoral district—a feature that can work in small homogenous countries such as Israel and the Netherlands but makes no sense in a country as large and diverse as Russia. An excessively high threshold for party entry into parliament further distorts the proportional representation system, allowing the ruling party to easily dominate parliament. Finally, he criticizes the “locomotive” system that allows candidates who have no intention of sitting in the Duma to run at the head of their party’s list, only to be replaced by unknown deputies after the election.

Having discussed the problems that characterize Russia’s electoral system, Golosov then considers what kind of system should be adopted in the event of democratization. He shows that a majoritarian system based on single-mandate electoral districts would not work well in Russia because of its tendency to create highly disproportional outcomes and to entrench local bureaucratic clans in power. He recommends instead a modification of the current system of proportional representation, with lower thresholds and with relatively small electoral districts.

The bureaucracy plays a critical role in the functioning of the Russian political system. In “The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy,” Sergei Sytin describes the bureaucracy as a social stratum or corporation with its own subculture and political and economic interests. While traditionally state bureaucrats have been tasked with implementing decisions made by their political superiors, they are no longer willing to limit themselves to such a neutral role. Instead, Sytin argues, they are increasingly seeking to implement their own agenda, a tendency that has led to their partial politicization. He believes that the bureaucracy is gradually usurping power over state policymaking, although its dominance has only limited potential.

Since Vladimir Putin first came to power, propaganda has come to play an increasingly important role in the Russian political system. Aleksandr Belousov’s article, “Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia,” analyzes the forms and content of propaganda under the Putin–Medvedev regime, with a focus on the ideological concepts of the “power vertical” and “sovereign democracy.” He notes that the regime’s propaganda efforts were most successful in influencing the population during the first two Putin terms, when the regime established a circle of intermediaries who publicized its positions without necessarily having an official position in the government.

As far as the content of the propaganda, the concept of the power vertical was the basis for all subsequent propaganda constructs. It helped that the population was ready for an increase in centralization and control after the relative chaos of the Yeltsin years. The concept of sovereign democracy came later, with the goal of distinguishing the Russian political system from both the democratic ideals of the early postcommunist period and from Western democracies. The concept of sovereign democracy allowed the Putin regime to justify the changes it had made in the Russian political system without explicitly rejecting the democratic revolution of the late 1980s or the partial rapprochement with Western democracies.

The last two articles in this issue focus on efforts to change the rules under which Russian politics takes place. Mikhail Il_’chenko’s “Inertia in Russian Politics” discusses the extent to which reform of the Russian political system is hampered by institutional inertia. He argues that in the 1990s Russian reformers failed to import the institutional innovations that would have been necessary to turn Russia into a functioning democratic state. Neither the party system nor federalism worked as intended, creating instead what Ilchenko calls a decentralized version of the old Soviet nomenklatura. Despite extensive changes in the formal rules of the game, the mechanisms through which power is produced and through which leaders relate to society remain essentially unchanged. What many analysts consider to be traditional Russian values, such as paternalism, strict hierarchy, and clientelism, are in fact merely the representations of Russian political institutions. Putin’s reforms have ensconced these mechanisms more firmly in Russian politics, closing off alternative paths of development and foreclosing the possibility of gradual reform from within.

Ivan Bolshakov’s article on “The Nonsystemic Opposition” addresses the functioning of political opponents of Russia’s current political leadership. Bolshakov argues that the terms “extrasystemic opposition,” “antisystemic opposition,” and “nonsystemic opposition” all fall short as descriptions of what separates opposition parties from those in power, calling instead for a new vocabulary that would more accurately describe the role of such parties in the Russian political system. Bolshakov argues that none of the opposition parties existing in Russia today have a positive evaluation of the Russian political system. Their goals vary between seeking to change the existing system and wanting to destroy it entirely and start over.

The six articles in this issue show that the rules of the political game in Russia depend very little on the formal institutions of the political system. Instead, informal practices, interpersonal relations, and inertia determine power relations. This makes reform both highly necessary and very difficult to implement. The recent protests against fraudulent elections petered out largely because the majority of people who supported them quickly realized that they were not going to be able to affect the system, which would survive this brief scare. The comfortable reelection of Vladimir Putin showed that the system of power had weathered the storm and could endure with minimal modifications until the next crisis. As a result, the chances for real political reform declined further; the system appears likely to survive essentially unchanged until it is brought down completely by a future crisis that it cannot handle.

 

Russian Politics and Law, May 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 3 / May-June 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the mesharpe.metapress.com web site.

This issue contains:

The Rules of the Political Game in Russia: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Formats of Russian State Power  p. 7
Ol’ga V. Kryshtanovskaia
Problems of the Russian Electoral System  p. 18
Grigorii V. Golosov
The Russian Bureaucracy and State Policy  p. 40
Sergei Sytin
Political Propaganda in Contemporary Russia  p. 56
Aleksandr Belousov
Inertia in Russian Politics  p. 70
Mikhail Il’chenko
The Nonsystemic Opposition  p. 82
Ivan Bol’shakov

Russian Politics and Law, January 2012 Table of Contents

Volume 50 Number 1 / January-February 2012 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the M.E. Sharpe web site at http://mesharpe.metapress.com.

This issue contains:

Characteristics of Russian Power: Editor’s Introduction  p. 3
Dmitry Gorenburg
Perestroika, Second Edition: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Russia  p. 7
Vladimir B. Pastukhov
The Specific Nature of “Russian State Power”: Its Mental Structures, Ritual Practices, and Institutions  p. 36
Nikolai S. Rozov
The Post-Soviet Party of Power: United Russia in Comparative Context  p. 54
Boris I. Makarenko
The Russian Establishment: Paths and Means of Renewal  p. 84
Ol’ga A. Voronkova, Aleksandra A. Sidorova, Ol’ga V. Kryshtanovskaia

 

Characteristics of Russian Power: Editor’s Introduction

The current issue examines some of the key characteristics of the Russian political system from the cultural and institutional points of view. This set of articles shy away from close analysis of current political developments in favor of stepping back to look at the longue duree, in some cases going back to Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian history and culture to examine how earlier developments affect the modern Russian political system and its future trajectory. While other articles limit themselves to the post-Soviet period, they also analyze the impact of long-term trends in Russian power politics on current and future developments.

The first two articles in this issue discuss some of the conceptual bases for characterizing Russian power. “Perestroika, Second Edition: Revolution and Counterrevolution in Russia,” by Vladimir Pastukhov, assesses the prospects of a second perestroika based on his interpretation of modern Russian history in terms of the concepts of revolution and counterrevolution. Pastukhov begins by presenting his interpretation of Soviet history, in which the year 1953 plays the key role. For him, the death of Stalin and the subsequent execution of Beria were the events that signaled the end of the Bolshevik revolution and the beginning of a gradual transition to a state based on rules rather than violence that he terms a Soviet civilization. Khrushchev’s victory over Beria in the battle to succeed Stalin was the result, for Pastukhov, of a societal instinct for self-preservation kicking in.

Pastukhov terms the late Soviet period as a kind of bubble on the surface of Russian civilization. Its deflation led to the renewal of the Russian revolution in 1989 and resulted in the self-liquidation of the Soviet system. In other words, the Soviet leaders lost confidence in the system and started the process that led to its collapse. The current stage of Russia’s political development in many ways parallels the early stages of Gorbachev’s reform. The legal nihilism that pervades the top reaches of the Russian political elite has led its members to seek safer havens abroad for their financial resources and, often, their families. Without the advent of a political system governed by the rule of law, another revolution from above is inevitable, though the exact timing remains entirely unpredictable.

In “The Specific Nature of ‘Russian State Power’: Its Mental Structures, Ritual Practices, and Institutions,” Nikolai Rozov develops a dynamic theory of Russian state power as an ideal type and emphasizes the roles played by frames, symbols, and interactive rituals in its creation. He presents these frames as dichotomies, with key frames for Russian power including the concepts of our own versus other and idealism versus profit. He then argues that the specifics of these frames lead to the characteristics of the Russian national character, including such factors as atomization, poor self-discipline, and incapacity for self-organization, which result from the rejection of everything alien. Other characteristics, both positive and negative, result from various combinations of these frames.

Rozov then goes on to consider how these frames can explain some of the key attributes of Russian state power. He notes that Russian officials consider the rest of the population to belong to the category of other, rather than considering them to be part of our own. This mentality increases their willingness to sacrifice the people for the goal of achieving and holding on to power. As a result, the rulers have limited legitimacy in the eyes of the population and frequently have to result to violence to maintain control. Rozov concludes that as the international community has evolved, the crises of the Russian authoritarian state have become more frequent. As a result, the cycle of disintegration and restoration may be broken through a peaceful institutional revolution carried out by those social groups that do not accept the traditional cultural frames.

The final two articles turn to more concrete aspects of Russian power. Boris Makarenko’s “The Post-Soviet Party of Power: United Russia in Comparative Context,” addresses the character, role, structure, functions, and evolution of United Russia (UR) in the context of world experience with dominant and predominant parties in competitive political systems. In the first half of his article, Makarenko discusses the phenomenon of dominant parties with examples from around the world. He notes that the establishment of such parties allows for the establishment of broad elite coalitions that can maximize resources and minimize risks for elite projects. He shows that in various countries such parties have been set up both from above and from below.

In the typology of dominant parties, United Russia is neither a traditional catch-all party that avoids any form of ideological commitment in order to appeal to the broadest possible swathe of the electorate nor a monoparty that serves “merely [as a] means of support for military or civilian dictatorial regimes.” Instead,UR is a party of power, a new dominant party type that has been created in the post-communist world in order to support the re-election of a popularly elected president and remains beholden to the power of the executive branch for its survival.

After briefly tracing the development of the party of power institution over the two decades of post-Soviet Russian history, Makarenko discusses the current state of UR. Its role as a dominant party has been cemented in recent years by increasing federal control of electoral processes at the local and regional level. As UR has squeezed all forms of opposition out of the legitimate political arena, its leadership has increasingly come to recognize that internal pluralism is necessary for the party’s continued functioning. To this end, it has created so-called clubs to foster intraparty discussion and allow for a diversity of views to be represented. Makarenko argues that while the party can continue to function quite successfully as an electoral machine, it is incapable of providing the new ideas necessary to continue the development of Russian politics and society and therefore risks becoming a dead end model for Russian political development.

The final article in this issue, “The Russian Establishment: Paths and Means of Renewal,” by Olga Voronkova, Aleksandra Sidorova, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, analyzes the changing structure of the Russian government elite in terms of age, length of service, place of birth, level and type of education, and work experience. The article uses a unique database of biographical information on 175 members of the elite who served in top positions in the Russian government between 2000 and 2009. The study rejects the conventional wisdom that President Putin’s governing team was formed primarily from a combination of Putin’s colleagues from the power ministries and from St. Petersburg. However, it does confirm that Putin’s closest advisers were from one (or both) of these camps.

In conclusion, the authors argue that the Russian political system has yet to develop a functioning formal mechanism of elite recruitment. In its absence, leaders resort to the traditional methods of recruiting their teams through personal ties based on previous service together in other branches of government. As a result, the channels for younger cohorts to enter the government are inadequate and prevent the introduction of new ideas into the political system. One of the Russian government’s greatest challenges is how to develop a personnel reserve system that allows for the regular renewal of governing elites.

While the four articles in this issue come from very different points of view, they all share a conviction that the Russian political system faces a critical juncture. For all of them, the existing system is at the point where it has more or less played out its possibilities. The choices made by the current set of leaders over the next three to five years are likely to have a determining effect on Russian political development over the next several decades. They hold in their hands the choice of whether Russia continues to modernize its political and economic systems in a gradual manner or if it faces yet another revolutionary moment once the current political system ceases to be capable of dealing with the challenges of the future. My sense is that Putin and his team are more likely to try to muddle through any coming crises, rather than taking the risk of shaking up the system. The lessons of Gorbachev are still too fresh in their minds. Another revolution from above is at least a generation away.

 

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.

Russia’s Political Future: Scenarios and Projections

The financial crisis that almost swamped Russia’s economic system in the fall of 2008 also led to renewed speculation about the stability and long-term endurance of the country’s political system. While it had previously appeared that the windfall revenues earned by the government from Russia’s energy wealth would allow its leaders to spend their way out of any potential difficulties, this prospect was put to a very real test as the government was forced to spend a large part of its financial reserves just to prop up the ruble and to bail out indebted state-allied corporations. Although by early 2009 the economic situation had somewhat stabilized, analysts began to consider how the Russian political system would function in the absence of the financial resources its leaders had come to take for granted.

In this issue of Russian Politics and Law, a number of Russian authors examine the alternatives for the future development of Russia’s political system. Some of them (Melville, Timofeev, Busygina) do this through an alternative scenarios methodology, while others (Petrov, Peregudov) simply extrapolate based on trends they see in the current political environment. The combination of the two approaches provides a wide range of possibilities for what Russian politics will be like five to ten years from now.

In their much discussed report on MGIMO’s scenario-building exercise (“Russia 2020: Alternative Scenarios and Public Preferences”), Andrei Melville and Ivan Timofeev develop four possible scenarios for Russia’s future development and then describe the responses of five Moscow focus groups (arranged by political leanings) to these scenarios. The scenarios range from an an ideal world of peace, economic growth, greater internal democracy, and Russia’s integration into the international community as a well-respected partner (New Dream) through an extension of current trends ten years into the future (Kremlin Gambit) to one where Russia is surrounded by hostile or unstable states and has to mobilize all of its resources to maintain its sovereignty (Fortress Russia). A fourth scenario (Russian Mosaic) appears to go back to the 1990s by focusing on the potential for a weak, decentralized Russia that is forced to play according to Western rules that it has had no part in formulating.