Russian regions: actors, institutions, practices
The seminar brought together academics of regional social and economic development and activists from these regions with the goal of starting dialogue on contemporary regional issues. The seminar addressed the gap in Russian urban theory and city development in contemporary Russia.
Key presentation on the first day was made by Dr Ben Noble from UCL.
Ben addressed the surprising election results in Russia’s regions in 2018, including opposition party successes in gubernatorial elections. How significant are these results? How likely will opposition party governors be able to work effectively with regional assemblies – and with the Kremlin? And how do executive legislative relations in the regions compare to the balance of power between the federal level legislature and executive? His talk touched on these points and others, following a brief discussion regarding the level of interest in, and knowledge of, Russia’s regions in the UK.
Natalia Zubarevich, professor of Moscow State University, gave a keynote lecture on the second day. Her talk was dedicated to the drastic change in the relationship between the federal centre and the regions in Russia since 1990. So-called “power vertical” was established in the noughties and regions became extremely dependent on federal policies. The federal authorities control regions in different ways. The federal core redistributes regional tax revenues into federal budget. Transfers (financial aid) from federal into regional budget are calculated using non-transparent criteria. The influence of lobbying and geopolitical priorities (Crimea, the North Caucuses, the Far East) is increasing. The regions have to follow federal directives on increasing salary in the public sector (sponsored by government), paying for it from their budgets. This results in growing regional budget deficits and thus regional debt. Big businesses – especially companies controlled by the State that operate regionally – still solve all their problems at the federal level. This means regional relationships are becoming less important for them. Elections of regional governors have become a pure formality; the Kremlin replaces undesirable governors easily. Through using the so-called “municipal filter”, authorities do not let potentially successful candidates take part in the elections. The majority of governors have no previous connection to the territory to which they have been assigned. Yet they are still able to win the elections, which are controlled by federal authorities. 2018 marked the first time that the federal centre’s gubernatorial candidates lost regional elections. On the whole, institutional barriers for development of Russia’s regions have increased whereas the opportunities for conducting independent regional policies have diminished.
Some regional authorities (Republic of Tatarstan, Tyumen and Kaluga oblast’) are trying to stimulate economic growth and attract investment. They have been successful but federal policies that have negative impact on investment affect them more and more every year. Regions cannot challenge the federal centre in the political and interbudgetary relations because it can lead to dismissal of the corresponding governor. It can be said that the higher the level of centralisation, the lower the rate of economic development and management efficiency in Russia. It is unlikely that current politico-economic cycle (while Putin stays in power) will see any positive changes to this situation.
Victor Vashtain from Moscow School of Social and Economic Studies talked about how the influence of social values on the economy has become an area of increasing interest in the social sciences over recent decades. The importance of trust for economic life has been a particular focus. There is a widely held view that a high level of trust leads to prosperous societies; correspondingly, ‘economic prosperity requires a culture of trust’ (Fukuyama, 1995). Today, this issue is a subject of increased attention because of a so-called “crisis of trust”. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that institutional trust has declined broadly around the world.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust index (i.e. the average trust in institutions) in Russia is 31; this is the lowest result out of the 28 countries surveyed. Moreover, according to the World Value Survey, the level of interpersonal trust in Russia is remarkably low. Fewer than 30% of Russians tend to agree with the statement that “most people can be trusted”.
Yet, according to the Eurobarometer in Russia (which similarly reports that average trust is exceptionally low), more than 70% of Russian citizens say that they trust people who belong to their social milieu; 98% trust their families, relatives, and friends. What is more, we are witnessing that the more people trust their social circle, the less they trust institutions. This contradicts the classical view that people who trust institutions are more likely to trust their fellow citizens (Rothstein, Uslaner, 2005). So, based on this data, we suggest that there is a gap between interpersonal and generalized trust in Russia. People who trust their group are more cautious of people outside their circle.
Guzel Yusupova from Durham University examined the social movement of Russian ethnic minorities in defence of the second state languages in the context of politics of fear, paying special attention to the developments in Tatarstan. Analysis is positioned on the intersection of complexity theory in nationalism studies that explains how small actions of ordinary people could lead to a national movement and the theory of connective action from the literature on social movements which explains how digitally mediated political engagement leads to a social change. This theoretical fusion provides a nuanced explanation of spontaneously organized resistance to the demotion of minority languages by the central government.
Interviews with activists, participant observation and qualitative content analysis of social networking sites (SNS) reveal that despite the covert restrictions of offline social mobilization, the resistance has been transformed into the vivid online connective action, advancing grass-roots activities and inter-ethnic solidarity. This has resulted in establishing weak ties between representatives of the single ethnic group and among different ethnic groups and in making ethnic minority issues more salient in public discourse. Connective action on SNS has led to the awareness that many people share the same political positions and has resulted in feelings of togetherness that helped to promote united actions in the restricted political space to oppose the decisions of the federal government.
Elena Trubina from Ural Federal University has given a keynote on the third day.
Drawing on David Harvey’s account of the contradictions of capitalism and Wladimir Andreff’s analysis of the Olympic bidding as monopolist allocation process based on auctioning in a context of asymmetrical information, Elena’s paper established the theoretical concept of “urban commodity futures”: a process of urban change both enabled by and formative of the boosters of “the next big thing in the city”. The discursive performativity of the visions of the urban future generated by the boosters creates new and reproduces existing possibilities for profitable manipulation of the public sector. For instance, planners in Osaka, Baku and Ekaterinburg are increasingly drawing on narratives about “urban futures” and work hard to get a bid of support from different countries and to influence the Bureau International des Expositions. Attaining a better future by means of constructing the Expo grounds and revitalizing city centers has been harshly criticized by scholars (Greenhalgh 1991, Flyvbjerg 2014) and this critique was one of the reasons behind the recent decision to withdraw Paris’s candidacy. As a result, the Paris-based governing body will be deciding between the city in Japan, the country characterized as “uncommon democracy” (Pempel 1990), and two cities in the full-fledged neo-authoritarian countries – Azerbaijan and Russia. A similar tendency has been observed in the process of the mega-events’ allocation: it had shifted towards the authoritarian (from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup) countries. With the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, it can be argued that while historically the World Expos were organized to foster the development of international relations, they currently increasingly serve as soft power tools (Wallis and Balsamo 2016) helping to promote globally the neoauthoritarian nations. Drawing on mixed-methods fieldwork and media analysis, Elena illustrates how futuristic and positive narratives are mobilized together with nationalist tropes about modernizing countries and improving their international prestige. With a focus on recent efforts to increase localities’ global exposure through the host city’s intensive branding and place marketing campaigns related to the bids to host the Expo, this analysis sheds light on the political and commercial ‘selling’ of future events which combines probabilistic and securitized logic characteristic for finance capitalism and “leapfrogging” strategies which are discussed in the framework of economic growth of developing countries (based on Joseph Schumpeter’ ideas of creative destruction).
Alexei Novikov, Habidatum, has asked – If we build it, will they come? This is a traditional question many architects and urban planners across the globe keep asking themselves. They are afraid of an inadequate functional profile of the proposed space by the time the construction comes to an end when public needs and values appear quite different from what they were at the conception stage of the project.
In addition to these shared issues, Russian urban managers and professionals may have an extra challenge, and it is nothing to do with being too late to the market, it is about being too early.
Most of the investments in urban public space are being made in Russia under the assumption that a renovated space may finally generate economic activity with additional revenue for urban governments. That, according to urban managers, will likely make citizens happier, or perhaps even loyal to the existing political regime.
However, empirical evidence, both in Russian capitals (St. Petersburg and Moscow) and provincial towns, does not support such an assumption. Before expecting public space in Russia to be functiona,l one has to make sure there is a public there, a self-organized and self-motivated group of people, that can animate urban design on a daily basis, and make out of it more than just a decoration for the organized events.
The presentation was based on Habidatum’s research of people’s mobility patterns during FIFA 2018 world cup that took place in several key Russia cities. The study employs mobility data generated by Beeline, one of the largest telcos in Russia, and also spend data, generated by Operator of Fiscal Data “Platforma”.
Michael Gentile, from University of Oslo, started by addressing urban scholarship in post-Soviet countries. It started labeling the countries that used to be part of the anachronistic Communist behemoth as post-Soviet, post-socialist, or similar. Inadvertently, a very resilient yet theoretically lightweight spatio-temporal – more spatial than temporal – container was assigned a front seat in discussions on urban transformations in a very diverse universe of cities. As a result, these cities struggle to find the place they deserve within the broader urban literature, which is frequently referred to as “international”. This talk engages with this problem. Using three examples of gentrificationesque phenomena occurring in Ukraine, Georgia and Latvia, it illustrates (that there are) some pathways into “international theory”, but that they presume that “post-socialism” be sacrificed en route.
Ksenia Mokrushina (ex-director of Skolkovo centre for Urban Studies, founder of CityKompas project) started the discussion about the present and future of the planning profession, offering the argument that the status of urban researchers and planners in Russia remains marginal and controversial, not least due to the superficial, top-down and highly centralized urban improvement policies currently implemented by the Russian government. The deficiencies of the spatial governance system go hand-in-hand with the failures of the system of academic and professional training and development in urban studies and planning, which is presently lacking important elements, such as a representative body, membership and recognition system, constructive and independent professional dialogue, clear career tracks, mentorship and intergenerational continuity and so forth. How the expert community in Russia acknowledges and addresses these challenges, remains an open question.
Professor Judith Pallot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were summing up the talks in the end of each day, opening up the floor for the discussion on knowledge transfer between academia and practitioners and discussing the role of governmental institutions, NGOs and independent actors in regional development.