The Growing Tension Between Regional and Local Government in Russia
By Allison Abrams
At a 7 January 1999 lecture at the Kennan Institute, Alfred Evans, Professor, Department of Political Science, California State University, Fresno, discussed the increasingly confrontational relationship between local and regional governments, and its parallels with the relationship between the national and regional governments.
Evans noted that the presidential administration's drive toward centralization intensified after Yeltsin's confrontation with the Duma in 1993. In theory, local governments were accorded a great deal of independence in Russia's December 1993 Constitution and its 1995 law on local self-government, but in reality they remained highly dependent. While Yeltsin attempted to centralize power nationally, regional governments attempted to centralize authority within their regions. Thus, a similar power struggle took place between regional and local governments.
After 1993, the President appointed regional governors, who in turn appointed the heads of the local governments within their region. This created a vertical hierarchy, whereby the regional governor was accountable to the President and local chief executives to the regional governor. Evans also remarked that regional governments were given much responsibility for the development of local self-government, despite their obvious interest in centralizing power within their own region and suppressing the independence of these governments.
Another factor encouraging centralization within each region was the lack of financial independence of the local governments. Evans commented that at the time, most locales in Russia were experiencing an economic decline, accompanied by decreasing local tax revenues, which were small to begin with. Due to such a lack of income, the town of Semenov in the Nizhny Novgorod region--an area Evans studied during 1994-95--did not even adopt a budget in 1993 or 1994, and was well into 1995 before one was created.
In addition to these financial constraints, Evans noted that higher levels of government and enterprises unloaded more responsibility for housing and services on local governments. Since their tax revenues are inadequate to support their responsibilities, local governments have been forced to appeal to higher levels of government, mainly the regional level, for assistance. Meanwhile, in many cases, regional governments are themselves appealing to the national government for assistance. Evans remarked that, due to the tremendous decline in the economy, basic questions of survival have come to the fore as evidenced by Semenov's appeal for assistance during the winter months to keep its boiler houses operational and to provide heat for homes, schools, hospitals, and other institutions.
In general, the regional governor has much discretion in the distribution of financial assistance. By 1994, executive dominance was seen not only on the regional level, but also on local and national levels. In the local administration, the chief executive filled the role previously occupied by the first secretary of the local communist party organization, who was broadly responsible for all district matters. To obtain much-needed assistance, the local chief executive found it necessary to rely on close personal ties with the regional governor. Regional governors, for their part, were able to use this situation to build strong local support bases within their regions during 1994-95.
The advent of elections at the regional and local levels in 1996-97 brought changes in the relationships among the three levels of government. Regional governors are now elected by popular vote and are no longer indebted to the President for their positions. Local chief executives are now either directly elected or chosen by the locally-elected legislative body. In addition, though the power base of the regional governors within their region has been examined very little, Evans has observed that most governors who seek reelection seem to rely not on party organizations but on local officials, to mobilize support for their campaigns within the region.
According to Evans, the relationship between local officials and regional governors is becoming increasingly adversarial, as evidenced by several recent well-publicized battles. In addition to the problem of shortfalls in subsidies from regional governments, some local chief executives resent being used as a buffer between the regional governor and the population: they feel they are being blamed for all the shortcomings, while the regional governors take the credit for successes. Moreover, while a few years ago local executives spoke of the need to ask or petition (prosit') for financial assistance from the governor, they now describe themselves as trying to dislodge or beat out (vybit') funds.
As in Semenov, local officials often complain that the funds they do receive are "crumbs"--inadequate to satisfy the pressing needs at the local level, thereby weakening their authority. Evans noted that local governments that have been unable to obtain needed assistance, have attempted to facilitate barter agreements for services and goods, even trading abroad (mostly with countries of the former Soviet Union). As vertical relationships have come under increasing stress, local officials are attempting to strengthen various types of horizontal ties.