Monday, April 18, 2016

History, Popular Attitudes Combine to Limit Effective Local Government in Russia, Expert Says

Paul Goble
Staunton, April 18 – Because of their history, Russians view local self-government simultaneously as a way of running their own affairs and as an extension of the central government, an internal contradiction that continues to limit the appearance of effective local self-government in the country, according to Oleg Ivanov.

Ivanov, a political analyst who heads the local self-administration section of the Moscow Institute of Real Economics, traces this split back to Soviet and pre-Soviet experiences and to the ways in which Russians and their central government have interacted since the collapse of the USSR (

And he suggests that this tradition with regard to local governance will only be overcome in the longer term and then only if Russians find a way of combining their national pattern with those of Western Europe rather than trying to substitute the latter for the former as some reformers did in the 1990s.

Polls show that Russians today simultaneously hold fast to two contradictory ideas when it comes to local governance, Ivanov writes. On the one hand, many of them view local governance as a form of civil society’s “self-organization.” But on the other, an equally large number view local governments “exclusively as an extension of the federal power vertical.”

That Russians should have these contradictory attitudes has “completely logical explanations” that arise from Russian history.  In medieval Novgorod and Pskov, Russians did have a powerful and remarkably democratic form of rule; but even in these veche republics, there was no willingness to allow for “a system of organs of local self-administration.”

And even when organs of local self-administration appeared in the Russian Empire in 1864, they were focused almost entirely on the implementation of the center’s policy of freeing the serfs.  In Soviet times, that continued, with “the principle of democratic centralism” overriding any local initiative and action.

“In the 1990s,” Ivanov continues, “local self-administration was considered by Russians as one of the main spheres of pubic activity requiring legal regulation. [But] it was obvious,” he adds, “that public consciousness then was clearly not prepared to conceive [it] as a separate institution” with its own rights and responsibilities.

As a result, two types of municipal governance emerged: the “strong” in which little princelings “who at times had practically unlimited power exceeded their authority” and the “weak” in which nothing changed from Soviet times and which as before were completely dependent on the organs of [central] state power.”

As a result, “no compromise occurred,” and all of the issues simply remained in limbo until 2003 when the Duma adopted a federal law on the principles of local self-administration, a measure that reflected some good intentions, Ivanov implies, but that was incapable of addressing the underlying problems in this area.

As everyone knows, he continues, “organs of local self-administration in [Russia] are not in a position to effectively develop without support from the organs of state power.” That by itself creates a very different situation than the one in Europe where local self-government emerged “from below” rather than “from above.”

Moreover, “Soviet power unfortunately formed in our citizens to a large extent a culture of dependency” and this “psychology, formed in the years of the USSR cannot be changed instantly. This is a large and deep problem, one whose reflection is to be found in the majority of spheres of our life.”

“In Russia, the population traditionally supports a single strong vertical of power,” one in which the issue of where problems of daily life are resolved be it the center or locally “does not have particular importance. What is the main thing is that the problem be resolved,” Ivanov continues.

Neither the Western liberal model which some Russians tried to impose in the 1990s or the Russian statist model with roots going back to Ivan IV “can be effectively implemented in a pure form” now. The statist model “must not be totalitarian,” but it also must be taken into consideration, Ivanov says.

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