The Chronicles of Russia's Regional Politics

V.Ya.Gelman

Abstract

Review on the book: Aleksandr Kynev, Governors in Russia: Between Elections and Appointments, Moscow: Liberal Mission Foundation, 2020


Most probably, there is no other person in the world who would have as deep an understanding of Russia's subnational politics as Aleksandr Kynev does. When it comes to the study of politics in Russia, Kynev's expertise is unrivalled both in Russia and abroad. His vast knowledge and in-depth experience of Russian political scene is a result of almost two decades of field work, election monitoring and data collection and analysis. This expertise makes Kynev’s political commentaries and evaluations so engaging — even for those specialists who tend to strongly disagree with him. Published under Liberal Mission Foundation, Kynev's new monograph [1] is not just a standard analytical overview of current political events: it is a detailed and comprehensive account of regional politics in Russia spanning over a thousand pages. The book's coverage and analysis of political developments starts as early as the times of the Russian Empire and ends with the 2018 gubernatorial elections in Russia. A special emphasis is put on the post-Soviet period of Russia's political history after 1991.

The very fact that chief executives of Russia’s regions (governors) play key roles in both subnational and national politics is indisputable. It therefore comes as no surprise that any governor-related issues – be it the institution of governorship itself, or gubernatorial elections or appointments in particular – often become the focus of attention for scholarly research conducted both by Russia-based and international scholars. Many of these studies aimed at quantitative testing of various hypotheses with the use of statistical techniques. Kynev's monograph, however, stands out among such studies both content- and style-wise. The book puts gubernatorial elections and appointments into the context of Russia's current political history to provide a deeper understanding of the rationales and mechanisms that determine the political trajectory of governorship in Russia. What makes Kynev's work stand out is the systematic focus on the so-called "thick description", an approach more typical in anthropological research rather than in political science. This approach was popularized by the late Vladimir Pribylovsky, an outstanding chronicler of Russian and Soviet politics. According to Kynev, his monograph uses The Political Almanac of Russia published by the Carnegie Moscow Center – the book that offered the first systematic overview of regional political development in Russia in the 1990s – as a "point of departure". The extensive amount of unique material is not the only thing that makes Kynev's approach and research findings so valuable. The monograph provides readers with a systematic yet multidimensional understanding of how governorship in Russia has evolved over past decades. This understanding is essential for anyone studying Russian politics, and this is why there is no doubt that Kynev's new book will stay relevant for years to come. Despite the book's impressive scope and size, its easily readable but engaging language makes it a great recommendation for political science students. Another factor that makes the book special is that the Liberal Mission Foundation has graciously provided open access to Governors in Russia book from their website free of charge.

The books follows a chronological order based on the key periods of post-Soviet history. The starting period is Russia's spontaneous decentralization of the early 1990s, which Kynev analyses through gradual emergence of regional political regimes and diversification of the country's political development. These processes took place over the course of several electoral cycles and also saw governors expanding their subnational and national political powers and authority. The next period takes place in early 2000s and is characterized by recentralization, its key point being the abolition of popular gubernatorial elections in 2004. Kynev regards this event as a heavy blow to both regional and nation-wide democracy in Russia, especially in the light of Moscow attempting to concentrate nearly all power and authority – a sentiment that is difficult to disagree with. The next period spans between 2005 and 2012 and is characterized by the de-facto appointment of governors. This period did not and could not improve governance in the regions, replacing the open competition for votes between candidates with behind-the-scenes competition of vested interests in the corridors of power. Kynev also provides a detailed analysis of the current period of Russia's gubernatorial history that started in 2012 – the year gubernatorial elections made a comeback. This time, however, the elections got suffered from the so-called "municipal filter", which made sure to eliminate any real competition between candidates (although the book does provide an account of situations where this system faltered). Apart from detailed overviews of gubernatorial election campaigns, the book also analyzes the relations of governors with other subnational political actors, such as legislative assemblies, political parties and local governments. These analyses are provided separately for each period.

As amply demonstrated by Kynev, Kremlin's betting on the "executive power vertical" as a means of political control has proven to be devastating for both regional and nation-wide development in Russia. The determination of the Kremlin to do whatever it takes to prevent any undesirable outcomes in Russian politics, multiplied by the unjustified effort to homogenize the regions, brings numerous misguided solutions, and their amount and costs only continue to increase over time. The multiple recent failures of Moscow in various regions, such as the ongoing Shiyes landfill protests and the highly controversial case against Khabarovsk Krai governor Sergei Furgal are the vivid illustrations for the arguments advanced by Kynev (his book does not cover these events, which occurred in the period after 2018). Although the author's assumptions of Russia's inevitable decentralization in the future as a side effect of new political regime changes do seem justified, a smooth transition towards this direction is highly unlikely. Besides, the longer Kremlin sticks to its approach of tight control of the regions, the higher the risks of the situation aggravating in the future. As Kynev rightly observes, "in order to avoid mistakes in creating proper and effective political institutions, one has to be aware of how they appeared and developed in the first place" (p. 7). We have yet to see how well Russian politicians and experts will do with the "correction of errors" of the post-Soviet legacy of transforming regional executive branch analyzed in Kynev’s book.

Received 20.09.2020.


References

  1. Kynev A.V. Gubernatory v Rossii: mezhdu vyborami i naznacheniyami [Governors in Russia: Between Elections and Appointments]. Moscow: Liberal Mission Foundation, 2020. 1030 p. (ISBN 978-5-903135-68-4). (In Russ.) - http://www.liberal.ru/library/7656