Stanton, February 19 – Under Vladimir Putin, decentralization does not mean that the regions get more power as they get less money but rather than they are made more responsible for fulfilling “unpopular decisions” and “declared guilty” of all the problems Russians face, according to Nataliya Zubarevich.
There is ever less money for Moscow to transfer to the regions but there is ever more willingness on the part of the center to create unfunded liabilities for the regions, thereby creating the latest form of the old Russian principle of “the good tsar and the bad boyars,” the regional specialist says (rbc.ru/opinions/politics/25/01/2016/56a5f9979a794784fa41f7ea).
“The worsening of the economic situation in Russia has stimulated the appearance of apocalyptic predictions,” especially about the budget and the possibilities of transferring money from the center to the regions. So far, the finance ministry has succeeded in keeping the decline in the latter at only three percent in nominal terms, lest there be a social explosion.
But even that has had a negative effect: 76 regions are now operating with a deficit, up from 75 in 2014, forcing the regions to adapt. That is happening, and total regional budget indebtedness has in fact fallen from 469 billion rubles in 2014 to 191 billion rubles in 2015 by merciless cutbacks in servics, Zubarevich says.
Some have predicted that all of this will mark a return to the situation of the 1990s, but there are reasons to think that will not happen, she continues. “The regions have no freedom of maneuver” now, and the power vertical can be counted on to punish any regional leader who gets out of line.
That puts regional governments in a most unenviable position. Namely on them falls the weight of “’optimization’ of spending on social programs which forms two-thirds of the spending of the consolidated budgets of the regions.” Spending on education has thus fallen in 41 regions, overall spending on hospitals by 12 percent, and spending on culture by two percent.
Forcing the regions to take unpopular decisions not only shifts the blame away from Moscow but gives the siloviki an additional way to control governors. If they carry out the cutbacks that the center’s policies require but in a way that causes problems, Moscow can successfully blame them for what happens.
“In the second year or two,” Zubarevich says, “we will see decentralization and even federalization … but of a very specific type. Responsibility for taking unpopular decisions will be shifted to the regional authorities,” but if there is a popular reaction, they will be blamed and quite possibly removed from office by Moscow.
That means that the governors and their regimes have to play by rules than they are not in a position to change: they have to avoid going too far, adopting regional laws that could get them in more trouble, and at the same time intensify their lobbying activities while recognizing that they have little choice but to go along.
“But if games by these rules will continue,” Zubarevich concludes, “what will result will be the most difficult outcome for the country – degradation.” That is because “the problem is not in the risks of decentralization … but in the serious defects of today’s Russian institutions and the motivations of elites which is leading to the administrative impotence of the entire vertical.”