Thursday, February 8, 2018

Democratization and Decentralization Alone Won’t Prevent Regional Authoritarianism, Gelman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 8 – The democratization of Russia at the country-wide level and the decentralization of power from Moscow to the regions are necessary steps for Russia’s future,  Vladimir Gelman of St. Petersburg’s European University says.  But by themselves, they are insufficient to prevent the survival or rise of “sub-national authoritarianism.”

            The two “D’s,’” he writes in an Ekho Moskvy post are key elements of the Plan of Changes that he and other analysts have offered as necessary preconditions for a successful future. No one can doubt that free and honest elections as well as other freedoms and a rejection of the power vertical are needed (

            But at the same time, “democratization at the federal level, if accompanied by decentralization” will not necessarily “lead to the establishment of democracy and effective administration in the regions and cities of Russia,” Gelman continues. Instead, they will lead to new challenges of authoritarianism as the experience of the 1990s shows.

            “At the start of the 1990s,” Gelman says, “Russia experienced a wave of democratization and decentralization simultaneously.” But the results were “far from the good intentions” of those behind them.  In many cases, a phenomenon which political scientists call “’subnational authoritarianism’” arose, in which leaders used democratic forms to destroy all democracy.

            According to Gelman, “the establishment of sub-national authoritarianism in Russia in the 1990s was accompanied by ineffective administration and corruption. It isn’t surprising that the federal reforms undertaken in the early 2000s intended to put an end to this practice initially were met with enthusiasm.”

            But instead of putting an end to sub-national authoritarianism, the scholar says, these reforms simply integrated the regional leaders and their political machines into “the hierarchy administered by the Kremlin,” all subsequent cadres changes at the regional and local level notwithstanding.

            In fact, Gelman says, “sub-national authoritarianism became the chief support for authoritarianism in Russia as a whole.”

            To avoid a repetition of this, he continues, politicians in Moscow must adopt a series of political steps designed if not to eliminate sub-national authoritarianism altogether then at least to limit its fatal consequences for the regions and for Russia as a whole. That won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.

            According to Gelman, “decentralization of administration must be directed not only and not so much to the regions as to municipalities and above all to the major cities of Russia which are the chief drivers of growth.”  Their powers and resources must be significantly broadened from what they are today.

            “Over the last decade, under pressure from the Kremlin and many governors,” he points out, “the majority of major cities of Russia have been stripped of universal elections of mayors.” That must be reversed.  But the regions must also gain more rights, including professional and larger rather than part-time and smaller parliaments. 

            The municipal filter must be disbanded and term limits introduced for mayors and governors, and the center must intervene only in cases where there are serious violations of the constitution and laws.  Moscow’s main task ought to be restricted to ensuring that elections at all levels are free and fair.

            The situation of the republics in the North Caucasus requires special comment: Their low level of development and complex ethnic and religious problems requires that the center pursue a more active policy but only one based on an acceptance of diversity and the principle that whatever it does should “’do no harm.’”

            It is quite likely, Gelman says, that some form of direct federal administration of the republics in this region will be required; but it should still be viewed as something “extraordinary” rather than as a tactic Moscow can employ at will.  Otherwise, any gains in one place will be lost in others.

            “Overcoming sub-national authoritarianism will take long years and require no small efforts from federal politicians as well as Russian society,” Gelman writes; but unless that goal is pursued, democracy in the country as a whole will remain compromised.

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