Monday, November 22, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Regional Heads Increasingly Resemble Soviet Prefects of the Past, Expert Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 22 – Russia’s regional leaders today increasingly occupy a niche and play a role like “the Soviet prefects” US scholar Jerry Hough described in that they form part of a system in which a controlling state bureaucracy and a centralized party nonetheless allows for the development of local political machines, according to a St. Petersburg scholar.
In a September lecture posted online last week, Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science and sociology at the European University in the northern capital, says that the current arrangements reflect a restoration in many but not all respects of those of Soviet regional leaders 30 to 40 years (
And he argues that what is worrisome in this situation is that even if democracy should by some miracle come to the Russian political system at the national level, that development would have little impact on these sub-national authoritarian systems absent specific policies from the center and popular mobilization from below.
Gelman notes that the regional political development of Russia has passed through two stages since the end of the Soviet period. In the 1990s, he notes, there was “spontaneous decentralization” and the appearance of a great “diversification” of organizational arrangements put in place by regional elites.
But after 2000, the year Vladimir Putin came to power, things changed “in the opposite direction.” There was “a recentralization of the state, financial, economic and administrative.” And regional and city administration were “ever more forced to follow those rules which were imposed on them from the center.”
Despite that, however, they were usually able to preserve their “political monopoly” in the regions and cities, Gelman continues, “even though their autonomy from the federal Center has been reduced.” As US specialist Edward Gibson has observed about Latin American systems, Russian regional and city heads were able to do so because “the control of borders.”
That is, these heads were able to treat the territories entrusted to them as “their personal domains,” forcing anyone who wants to get involved there to go through them and thus profiting as a result. And because of this and also the patrimonial nature of the political system, they are able to build political machines that work to keep themselves in power.
“Theoretically,” Gelman argues, there are two ways this could change. One would be a policy shift by Moscow which could decide not just to control the appointment of regional leaders but use “the most varied instruments – legal and force” to break up such machines. A second would involve political mobilization from below.
At the present time, neither of these things is on offer in Russia. The newly recentralized state apparatus and ruling United Russia Party are interested in maintaining these prefect-like institutions, and there is insufficient popular mobilization in most places to force a change from below.
In many ways, Gelman argues, this reflects a clear “historical continuity with the sub-national authoritarianism of the Soviet period,” a system of 30 to 35 years ago which was described by Hough as consisting of officials he called “the Soviet prefects,” officials who were appointed from above but built machines by controlling access to their fiefdoms.
“Of course,” the St. Petersburg scholar says, “here not everything is exactly as it was in Soviet times.” There is more intrigue connected with appointments and retirements. But “nevertheless, the most significant aspect [of both] is the non-competitive character of the regional and local political process” at least in terms of public politics.
This development has been assisted by the appearance of state corporatism with its branch-like system. That offers regional leaders the chance now, as in Soviet times, the perfect opportunity to “systematically dis-inform the federal powers, and the federal powers that be correspondingly cannot and very often do not want information about the real state of affairs.”
Gelman points out that it is important to remember that “the mechanism of control is only one aspect of the activity of ‘the power vertical.’” That set of institutions involves not only controlling the country but also and in many cases more importantly “the positive stimuli” that its members receive.
Put more simply, “in a country where the earning of rents is the main goal and chief content of state administration, it is very profitable to be attached to ‘the power vertical.’” And even more than in the late Soviet period, “negative stimuli” play only a secondary role compared to such “positive” enrichment.
“If we compare sub-national authoritarianism in Russia in the 1990s and in today’s Russia, then we see that these are two different stages” in political development, the first being a “serious disease of growth,” although one subject to cure, but the second being far more accurately described as “a chronic illness.”
Gelman concludes his argument by asking his listeners to imagine that “something supernatural has taken place in Russia and suddenly democratization at the country level takes place. For example … Putin leaves for another world or evil cyborgs kidnap him” and a real political struggle breaks out.
What would that mean as far as sub-national authoritarianism? “With a high degree of probability, in a significant part of Russian cities and regions, it would remain in its former condition,” something Gelman insists that does not point to a positive trajectory even if by some miracle the political situation of the country as a whole should change.

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