The need to consolidate local government is inevitably at odds with the logic of Russia’s political development in recent years, particularly with the increasing centralization of power.
From Local Self Government to the Power Vertical
Virtually all observers, including State Duma deputies and members of the Public Chamber, are agreed that the state of local government in Russia is poor. Its most important aspects – local democracy and local autonomy – have undergone changes in recent years that have made contemporary local government in Russia more comparable to its Soviet predecessor than its modern European counterpart. This is not to say that this state of affairs was predetermined by various unfavorable conditions, whether the weak historical foundations of local autonomy and democracy in Russia, or difficulties associated with the country’s market reforms. Russia during the 1990s took several significant steps towards establishing local self government. But nevertheless, local government reform was only partially successful, and in the first decade of the new millennium the policy agenda has made an abrupt about-face.
Mayors: Battle for Independence
The political weight of mayors in contemporary Russia is too small to guarantee them independence from governors. When political conditions are favorable, they can mobilize pragmatic arguments or appeal to European principles in efforts to block efforts to emasculate the autonomy of local government. However, whatever political successes they achieve are fragile and subject to reversal. While the issue of canceling mayoral elections altogether is off the table for the near future, the general trend remains clear: local government executives are losing political influence. And while the letter of the European Charter of Local Self-Government may be respected, its spirit in Russia is likely to be ignored.
New Rules for Municipal Elections
Despite all the faults and contradictions involved in Russia’s municipal reforms, the creation of a new level of governance for many regions would seem to have quite important long-term implications for civil society: citizens will gradually learn new skills of organization and true self governance. Even the decision by some regions to exercise their right to postpone the implementation of the reforms until the beginning of 2009 is not likely to stop the process, which directly affects millions of citizens. Real local self governance is the foundation on which other democratic institutions may develop. But at the very moment when the structure of political representation finally seemed to be gaining strength, it was deprived of its most important elements: the developing political party system and a legitimate parliament.
In the absence of any tradition of independent journalism, the producers and consumers of information are still seeking to understand the degree to which they need each other, as well as how to interact. The landscape has changed drastically over the past 15 years: state subsidies for municipal newspapers have become much smaller, while subsidies for private newspapers were never instituted. Readers have evolved into objects of competition: publishing companies’ prosperity and perspectives have begun depend both on their number and on the degree of trust they place in the newspaper. This transition has been difficult not only for newspapers, but for readers as well, and especially for the older generation. They were caught off guard by the sudden diversity of sources of information. As a result, many were unprepared to recognize and formulate their demands on journalists.
Russia’s Cities Face a Difficult Future
As best we can tell, the future facing Russia’s cities will differ strongly from the current state of affairs, such that the experience gained over recent years will be of little use in developing strategies for the medium term. There are some half dozen trends that, it seems, will keep us back-footed. Some of them would already appear to be evident, although neither experts nor those in power are paying much attention. In our view, the most important of these challenges include: the stability of market development, globalization, the transition to the post-industrial era, depopulation, and centralization. Each of these factors alone would be enough to make forecasting the future difficult. Taken together, they call into doubt our ability to prepare ourselves adequately for what the future holds.
The De-localization of Municipal Government
Alexander Puzanov and Lyudmila Ragozina
The implementation of municipal government reform will decrease cities’ independence in dealing with the most important issues under their jurisdiction. As expected, a significant number of cities have found themselves subject to a new ‘higher’ authority: the so-called ‘municipal region’, to which cities are forced to cede a significant part of their authority. Federal constituents are also more than happy to ask cities to cede to them – voluntarily or otherwise – certain powers, as has been the case, for example, with centralized procurement. The transition to the formation and approval of budgets on the local level is clearly being drawn out, while the degree to which cities control their own budgets is actually lower now than it was before reforms began. On the other hand, the majority of cities are trying to hold onto direct elections for mayors, seeing a popularly elected and thus more legitimate mayor as a form of defense for their independence.
The “Sequencing” Fallacy
Associated with the “no-preconditions” enthusiasm of democracy promoters has been a dominant model of transition featuring a decisive breakthrough in which the old regime collapses and the country moves very quickly to open national elections, followed by longerterm processes of state reform and civil society strengthening. Attempted transitions, however, often have led to different outcomes, including hybrid polities and even outright reversions to autocracy. As a result, democracy promoters are increasingly seeking alternative approaches for countries that face complicating conditions. One avenue of this search leads to a more gradualistic approach to democratization and democracy promotion. Democratic gradualism is different from sequencing. It does not entail putting off for decades or indefinitely the core element of democratization — the development of fair and open processes of political competition and choice. It involves reaching for the core element now, but doing so in iterative and cumulative ways rather than all at once.
The End of the Nonproliferation Regime?
The basic framework and success of the nonproliferation regime were built on cooperation between the superpowers in a bipolar world system. That system is gone. The fundamental requirement today is to establish a basis of cooperation between the most powerful state—the United States—and the others, without which pressing proliferation problems cannot be solved. The sole superpower cannot solve the North Korean and Iranian cases, or change the rules regulating nuclear technology. It must find ways to induce other key powers to cooperate with it even as they also wish to balance, influence, and perhaps reduce America’s power. This is what statesmen do, and nonproliferation is a problem of statesmanship more than it is of military power.