The regions are waking up

 Where in Russia are Muscovities worse than Americans?  08/17/2012, 08:36
The regions are waking up
Illustrations by Alexei Barkhatov, graphics by Yelena Pazukhina, photos by Elena Shkarubo

In late 2011, a little-known Moscow organisation, the «Strategic Developments Centre», published a report called «Driving forces and prospects for political transformation in Russia». In mid-2012 it suddenly seemed that the experts’ apparently far-fetched predictions about the changing political landscape had almost completely come true and the authors of the report became famous overnight. Sib.fm’s correspondents had a chat with one of them, CEO of the Strategic Developments Centre, Mikhail Dmitriev.

Sib.fm: Mikhail Egonovich, we want to broach the issue not so much of political transformation, as of the state which we live in. Extremely simplified, we might say that there are two opposite models. The first one is an authoritarian, hierarchical structure with individual control «from the top down». The second is a state governed by the rule of law, with the supremacy of procedures, peaceful handovers of power, an independent judiciary and so on. In your opinion, which pole is our country closer to, and to what extent?

Mikhail Dmitriev: Now it is hard to say. Of course, values of individualism are still not very noticeable. Today, it is more typical for the most modern and developed societies to focus on values associated with self-expression. Self-expression leads to individualisation and a drop of confidence in the state and any other formal institutions: from trade unions to the church and political parties. Those processes are discernible only in the uppermost layer of Russian society. An example of this is the isolation of protesters in Moscow from the rest of population.

Among the bulk of the urban population, the attitude to the state and other public institutions has changed most of all economically.

Society has stopped demanding just what is needed to survive — basic income support, housing, availability of foodstuffs and some sort of financial stability.

A mass protest movement started on Manezh Square in Moscow after the 4th December 2011 elections. At its peak, up to 150,000 people at a time attended rallies, according to various estimates.

This dominated 1990s Russia and remained a priority for the first ten years of Putin’s rule, but is now slowly fading into the background. This means that attitudes to the state are also changing. Previously, it was considered to be the only anchor of stability, which will act as a back-up if anything goes wrong. This is the reason there was a very strong emphasis on the redistributive role of the state, which lead our country to default in 1998. Today we don’t see this in society, which no longer makes such clear paternalistic requests to the state, where the latter is regarded as the only possibility for the maintenance of a stable income and an important factor of social levelling. People already have a different attitude to this. So the authorities think differently too.

Still, to what extent do the authoritarian thinking habits of the population influence the decision making process, say, during elections?

Those habits don’t exist anymore. We’re at a critical juncture, when authoritarianism has clearly lost its value. You can feel the reduction of distance between society and the authorities. Maybe the internet has helped. Nowadays, as we found out, even pensioners in distant Russian provinces thrive on the internet: for example, we found out about the recent news story with the Patriarch’s watch thanks to pensioners (the Head of the Orthodox Church was spotted wearing a luxury watch, which was then poorly edited out of a photo on his official website). What’s more, it happened in Novotroitsk, Orenburg Region — two kilometres from the border with Kazakhstan.

The population no longer treat the country’s leaders like some kind of gods who should be worshipped and admired. Now, Putin is perceived by our respondents as a part of everyday life.

«Hello, incomparable Vladimir Vladimirovich,» — Maria Solovenko, chief editor of the Vladivostok newspaper «People’s Chamber», addressed Putin at the Russian President’s press conference in February 2007.

Not to mention Medvedev — he even brought the status of President closer to the level of an ordinary citizen. Most people believe that they should choose their leaders themselves. There was a mass, nationwide negative reaction to the reshuffle of the tandem (Putin and Medvedev). We know from our focus groups. Respondents said: «What on earth is this? It’s like some sort of tsarism all over again.» Local elections are treated even more importantly because people have always got a lot of complaints about their local leaders. Society would like to have some sort of influence on the nomination of leaders at all levels. It doesn’t like to be deprived of this opportunity.

In Moscow at the height of the protest movement about 100,000 people out of a population of 10 million participated, i.e. roughly 1%. In Novosibirsk — around 3,000 out of 1.5 million people, or 0.2%, and after New Year only 300. I want to believe that the level of activity in the regions is growing, but the situation in winter and spring in Novosibirsk tell us the facts.

That corresponds to what we already know. We did not find a growing tendency to protest among mass social groups anywhere, even in Moscow. According to the data at our disposal, the last few months have seen a fairly rapid decline in protest activity. It had been increasing from 2009 to 2011 but began to decline in 2012, and quite noticeably at that. In this sense the protesters in Moscow, as I said, are an isolated segment of society. They’re not so numerous.

This is the only group with a growing willingness not only to protest, but also to engage in illegal, radical activities, including acts of violence.

Even six months ago these attitudes were a lot less common. In this respect Moscow is not at all a yardstick — it’s a completely different world, a far cry even from Novosibirsk, not to mention the deep provinces.

Nevertheless, in a recent speech you spoke about the promising trend of regionalisation and municipalisation of politics. What did you mean by that?

We’ve seen that priority issues have come closer to people in recent years. Those problems are largely on a local level because healthcare, education, personal safety, housing and public utilities are the fields for which the regional authorities and municipal government are to a large extent responsible. So people are more interested in affecting the behaviour of local authorities than the federal authorities. In the near future this will lead to a significant renewal of leaders at local and regional level and thanks to this they will have more legitimacy. We have studied the municipalities where there were truly competitive elections — Yaroslavl, Togliatti, Astrakhan, and Chernogolovka.

The picture is the same everywhere: a large part of the population prefer alternative leaders and trust them, because they demonstrate the ability to solve local problems.

The United Russia candidates lost the elections in Yaroslavl, Togliatti and Chernogolovka. The elections in Astrakhan ended with a hunger strike from candidate Oleg Shein, who didn’t recognise the victory of United Russia’s Mikhail Stolyarov.

What will happen next? Obviously, it is impossible to solve problems at the municipal level — municipalities don’t have the necessary financial base. Therefore, more legitimate local leaders will be able to put stronger pressure on upper level authorities, asserting their right to resources. Perhaps this will lead to the changes in the federal budget, for example, the redistribution of taxes on a local level. Then the same thing will happen with the Federal Subjects, because all the main problems that are being highlighted by citizens are local issues. It is clear that in many regions it has become impossible to implement truly good and successful local policies precisely because of excessive centralisation. Nothing can be decided without Moscow’s approval.

A typical situation which can result from this is, for example, healthcare, which was almost entirely centralised by Tatiana Golikova (ex-Minister for Health and Social Development), concentrating insurance premiums at the federal level. It’s likely that there will be an opposite reaction in such areas. Healthcare is one of the first candidates, we can see it. Resentment to hypercentralisation is brewing.

I suspect that health care will be one of the first areas of decentralisation, creating a model which will also intensify fiscal federalism in other spheres. This will lead to the redistribution of taxes and increase the influence of local authorities.

Most likely, Russia will evolve towards a more flexible and less centralised federation, like India and Germany. If that happens, it will greatly facilitate our integration into Greater Europe, because for them the federal model of Russia is much more understandable than the idea of a «tsar», who meddles in sewerage problems in every little town.

At a local level, do you sense an increase of discontent with the gap in prosperity between the regions and Moscow? Did this come up in your research at all? The slogan «We’ve had enough of feeding Moscow», in terms of budget disparity, is being heard more and more frequently in Novosibirsk and the Siberian Federal District. Is there a trend to think that Moscow has taken control of everything, including finances?

In central Russia, up to the Urals, where we have conducted our deepest research, there was no sense that the attitude to Moscow has changed dramatically. It even seems that it has become more lenient in virtue of the fact that the standard of living in the countryside is catching up with modern standards very quickly. It still differs from Moscow, of course, but not as much as in the mid-2000s. Take Novotroitsk, for example — when we arrived in the town, a cinema had just opened; there hadn’t been one for a long time. I went and was amazed — it was nicer than most cinemas in Moscow. Modern patterns of consumption, entertainment, shopping, financial services, access to credit, which is very important, the internet, and mobile communication are now available in remote areas... Old women are going online and telling us the latest news — that’s it, life has changed! In this respect I didn’t have the feeling that the attitude to Moscow had got better or worse — but on the whole people don’t like Muscovites.

However, there is another category of regions, which have the mentality of a domestic resource-providing colony. Our fellow sociologists who regularly conduct research on Sakhalin Island have mentioned this and we saw it ourselves in Astrakhan, where respondents answered: «Oligarchs from Moscow and St. Petersburg have overrun our city and taken all the best places. They suck resources from Astrakhan and the whole Volga delta is occupied by closed establishments for oligarchs’ entertainment. People are not allowed to catch fish or relax, and they don’t gain any income from it. All the money goes to somewhere in Moscow, St. Petersburg or off-shore.» It’s the same on Sakhalin. For them, Americans are people who come, organise production and everything works as it should. Then the Muscovites come to suck money out of the place and impose their own rules, like left-hand-drive cars. That’s a fact. I think this problem is felt more acutely in Novosibirsk than in any big city in European Russia.

You note that the quality of life in the regions has increased significantly in the last decade, which is a very important development. Nevertheless, in terms of budget resources, four times more money is spent per Muscovite than per resident of Novosibirsk. What do you think? Is it somehow justified?

The paradox is that for residents of Moscow and the Moscow Region the impact of these budgetary resources is not significant. It’s one thing, when we say that it’s a lot in absolute terms. But if we look at the percentage share of social transfers to the average incomes of Muscovites in 2007, at the peak of economic growth, it was almost two times lower than the Russian average. In particular, much lower than in St. Petersburg and most other big cities.

On 28th September 2010, «due to a loss of confidence» Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree «On the early dismissal of Moscow Mayor» Yuri Luzhkov, who had held the post for almost 18 years

Where does the money go then?

It’s just that there are high incomes in Moscow and active social redistribution is redundant there. Under Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow authorities pursued the politics of populism and that was wrong. At a time when people were becoming more financially independent and social transfers didn’t significantly affect the financial position of the overwhelming majority, Luzhkov stepped up social spending at frantic pace. In six pre-crisis years the share of investments in infrastructure in the Moscow budget almost halved and the share of expenditure on social benefits increased by almost a third. In many ways Moscow was a hostage of Luzhkov’s authoritarian system, who was still living by the political principles of the 1990s, when social payments were important even for Muscovites. Until the very end he tried to buy popularity from citizens with populist redistribution, increasing their payments. However, this wasn’t so vital for people any more: infrastructure, education, healthcare, law and order turned out to be much more important — things, which Luzhkov wasn’t able to provide.

Moscow’s healthcare system is horrible. It’s all about money, so there’s an incredible disparity in access to treatment and sometimes it’s impossible to get what you need even for money.

These are all examples of the fact that problems in Moscow can’t be solved just by throwing money at them. The contemporary problems aren’t caused by a lack of money, but the absence of good institutions, which Luzhkov’s system couldn’t even offer on paper. As a result, no one stood up for him when he was sent into retirement and his rating decreased very quickly. New mayor Sergei Sobyanin is at least trying to do something, but so far there have been no visible results. It’s very important to have a policy of establishing high-quality institutions and ensuring the availability of high-priority services. They don’t have that in Moscow yet.

Perhaps many of Moscow’s problems, including infrastructure and transport, would have already been solved if the country had chosen the path of federalism, when real power would start passing to the regions and the need for such bulky structures of central government would disappear.

Something is already being done. Decisions have been made regarding new mechanisms of consolidation reporting for large financial and industrial holding companies, which will keep a much larger share of income taxes and other fees at the local level, and not at the companies’ headquarters, which are located in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I’m afraid to give an exact figure but, in my opinion, the capital city will lose about 150 billion roubles ($5bn) on this. The authorities are taking a significant step towards the regions, because the funds will stay on the ground, where the money is really needed.

We would like to understand the role of central television and the federal terrestrial channels in forming the «world view» of people in the Russian provinces. As a matter of fact, television broadcasts ideas, which are swallowed by people who don’t have access to the internet. If there was a normal debate, lasting several hours, between Putin and opposition leaders Vladimir Ryzhkov or Alexei Navalny, what would happen to Putin’s rating, in your opinion?

Ratings aren’t significantly affected by such media events. Until recently, the president’s approval rating was more than 95% determined by people’s economic expectations. That is a very inertial parameter, which poorly reacts to current political events. Frankly, I don’t think that the media can influence such processes.

What’s more, you need to understand the specifics of modern television in Russia. The major part of the audience of central TV channels is women over 55 years old. The main television audience in Finland is people over 70 years old. We are also on our way from the 55-year-old category to the 70-year-old category. I think this will happen within the next 20 years. The processes of political thinking are different now. Moreover, there are regional TV channels whose audience is more than 35 million people — ¼ of the Russian population. Regional TV channels get their content in a different way. For example, there are associated production companies in Moscow which supply 70-80% of regional channels all over the country with standard content. I was interviewed there myself on our political report, which wouldn’t have been possible on central TV. Studios buy 10-15 hours of airtime at the local level and that content has very high ratings, because most people trust local channels more than others.

Another interesting result of your Centre’s research is the conclusion that society is not interested in the fight against corruption; it isn’t one of the priority requests. Why not? After all, if you think about it, we would be able to get much more effective healthcare, education, housing and public utilities and so on just by eradicating corruption. Why is the initial cause pushed to the background?

People rarely explain their reasons in focus groups. We simply see that corruption doesn’t «get them going». Instead, people are ready to talk about healthcare as much as they can because it affects all of us. As for corruption, from time to time they suggest shooting all the corrupt officials, of course. Though it’s not even an option to support a politician who promotes this idea — it’s considered to be demagoguery. I think that the main reason is that healthcare has a direct link with your personal troubles: you can hope that you will be cured. On the other hand if a corrupt official gets put in prison, there will be no direct personal benefit. After all, you didn’t give the bribe, someone else did. Will the health service or police force work better because some corrupt official has been punished? Who knows... Well, Navalny has helped to save 40 billion roubles of budget money, but it’s hard to say in concrete terms whose life has got better because of this.

The official website of «RosPil» (a non-profit social project which exposes corruption in state purchases) informs the reader that the total amount of orders on which violations were prevented is 40,407,536,066 roubles and 71 kopecks ($1.3bn)

We thought that corruption would be in the top five priorities, but that’s not the case at all; we were really surprised. We don’t know why, but we acknowledge the fact: corruption is not the most important thing. In the 1990s it was easy to stir up the population because they were more aggressive and had populist tendencies. They always wanted a scapegoat and hanging corrupt officials from trees would have perhaps caused a surge of satisfaction. Everything is different now. Society wants the most rational decisions to be made, which doesn’t include shooting corrupt officials. Society has become more mature.

In this context, how would you comment on the situation with Vladimir Egorkin, the head of social movement «Razvitie» (Development) from Chernogolovka, a small university town in the Moscow Region? In your focus groups he finished second (after Navalny) in the «elections» for President.

Read this interview
in Russian

This is a new model of behaviour in society. We still have no precedents that a governor could become a national leader. The mechanism of political career ascent from the bottom upwards wasn’t working. Now we are seeing the first signs that the top-down mechanism is not efficient, appointments from Moscow are being rejected. So the bottom-up approach, on the contrary, is becoming possible. We don’t know how far it will go. However, it’s already obvious: people put their local problems at the forefront and believe that is the most important thing in solving the country’s problems. We are seeing the emergence of a fundamentally new model of political behaviour. There was nothing like this in the past.

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