Jumpstarting Democracy: Novgorod as a Model of Rapid Social Change in Russia
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Nicolai Petro, a Professor of Political Science, University of Rhode Island, discussed the key elements of what he sees as a successful implementation of social change in the Russian region of Novgorod. According to Petro, "democracy can take root at the regional level in the most unexpected places." He described Novgorod's successful democratic consolidation according to three standards commonly used in measuring democratic transition: the creation of a new constitutional order; a clear level of economic prosperity; and an increase in the level of voluntary associations (civil society).
Petro stated that the first component of Novgorod's democratic consolidation has been the successful creation of a new constitutional order. He stressed that in this new framework there is an emphasis on creating a local legal infrastructure for self-government. Petro explained that Novgorod was one of the first regions to adopt laws establishing local government, which resulted in the first popular gubernatorial election in Russia.
According to Petro, a second constitutional innovation is the designation of municipal or district heads as heads of the local government. This fusion of the executive and legislative responsibilities , along with a redistricting scheme that has created electoral districts that overlap several municipal districts , creates "overlapping constituencies" that force officials to take a broader view of their political responsibilities. Another consequence of the semi-legislative system is to alter the financial management within the region. Petro stated that, "shifting financial responsibility has been a revolutionary transformation" which has resulted in an increase of pressure on local leaders to become more effective managers, and provided financing for important reforms, while allowing a degree a stability that is "the envy of other regions."
Petro attributed Novgorod's economic success to what he called "Novgorod's New Economic Policy." He explained that the combination of tax deferments, administrative help in reducing bureaucratic red tape, and the nation's most binding legal guarantees have proved successful in attracting foreign direct investment to the region. Petro noted that as a result of this, from 1995-98 Novgorod's gross domestic product annually rose by 3.8 percent while Russia's fell 2.7 percent. He explained that one major difference between the foreign direct investment in Novgorod versus investment in Russia was that tax incentives were only offered to companies that were willing pay the upfront costs of production. As a result, the region has enjoyed an influx of wealth with nearly three-quarters of taxes being paid in cash, which means pension funds and social payments are made on time.
Petro noted several trends in the region's development of civil society. He explained how regional leaders successfully used cultural symbols to increase voluntary association among citizens. According to Petro, "theories of democratic development are hard pressed to explain the change at the regional level, because researchers do not focus enough attention on the influence of culture on transition."
Petro concluded by offering four implications of the Novgorod model. First, economic and political reforms are closely tied to a revitalized sense of identity. Second, local governments and elites can shape values and priorities for their communities, even in the absence of national consensus. Third, ignoring local cultural patterns increases social tensions and undermines the prospect of democratization. Finally, the proper sequencing of foreign assistance is vital to economic success. Novgorod created a receptive cultural environment before it pursued institutional changes.