This trend, Shlosberg says, reflects the fact that Putin is anything but a contemporary leader. He is a person of the past, and his preferred model for Russia and its rule is drawn from that past, with its hyper-centralized empire ruled by diktat from the center. That antiquated approach is leaving Russia ever further behind the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this more obvious that in his approach to the regions. Under Putin, “the Russian Federation is not a federation. De fact we have a unitary and centralist state where all resources and authority are concentrated in the federal center” and where everywhere else, including even Petersburg is “a rightless ‘province.’”
This pattern reflects “the traditional, centuries-old desire of the Kremlin ‘to run everything,’” but it has more recent causes as well, Shlosberg says. Economically, this imperial rebirth was put in place by Aleksey Kudrin who, despite his reputation as a liberal, shifted resources away from the regions to the center and deprive the former of any independence.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a brief moment when the regions mattered and Moscow had to deal with them. But “one should not idealize the 1990s. In reality, the Russian elite of those years did not understand what a federation is.” They acted as they did only because they had to and constantly took steps to recentralize the country.
Politically, this drive took off under Putin who has sought to deprive the regions of any independence whatsoever. For him, “regional political parties are really unacceptable and dangerous. They are capable of destroying the system of current federal parties which are completely controlled by the Presidential Administration and the special services.”
Were such parties to be legalized, many in local elites would desert the federal parties and move to them; and the regional parties would defeat the latter because they would know the local situation better and have greater trust and support in the population. That would undermine the entire current system, but there is no real chance for that until there are real elections.
Moreover, before such parties can emerge, Russia must “restore the economic and legal bases of federalisms, in tax sharing, budgetary policy, the distribution of authority and so on.” At present, regional assemblies spend “no less than two thirds” of their time “bringing regional laws into correspondence with federal ones” rather than taking needed decisions.
According to Shlosberg, “the protests in Ingushetia are a sign that the people can rise up in defense of its land” even in the current situation and despite Kremlin control over the appointment of governors. “Evens of this kind can certainly take place in any Russian region,” and so there is hope.
“But the misfortune is that today we are ruled by profoundly backward people,” he continues. The Kremlin operates according to categories that were failing in the 20th century. “For them, the 21st century has not yet arrived: they are yesterday’s people.”