Who Benefited From the Departure of Governor Sipyagin, Who Was Not From United Russia, and Who Needs the Degradation of Municipal Government? Interview With Sociologist Dmitry Petrosyan

On December 16, the “star tandem” of Russian lawmakers, Senator Andrei Klishas and Pavel Krasheninnikov, a member of the lower house of parliament, submitted to the State Duma a draft law “On the general principles of local self-government organization in the unified system of public authority”. The document continues the vector of the constitutional amendment, which became Article 132 (local self-government bodies and bodies of state power are part of the unified system of public authority), and to an even greater extent deprives municipalities of their independence.

According to the draft law, local councils will be able to elect the head of the municipality either in elections, from their own composition, or at the recommendation of the governor. It can be predicted that the heads of cities and districts (which belong to the level of municipal power, which, according to the same Constitution, is separate from the state power) will in fact be appointed by the governor. District and city managers will be appointed for the term of office of the Council of Deputies. The latter innovation will eliminate cases of abuse of the right when heads “move into office” after receiving five-year terms of office from the outgoing loyal Council. Recall that this is what happened in 2020 in the Kameshkovsky district.

The governor will not only be able to appoint heads indirectly, but will also be able to appeal to the Council with the initiative to terminate their powers if there is a “systematic failure to achieve performance indicators. The bill will also eliminate elected bodies in small municipalities, which, in theory, will lead to an even greater breakdown in communication between the people and the authorities. The law is expected to take effect on January 1, 2023, but will be in transition until 2028. During these years, the existing councils will complete their work and will be replaced by new ones with reduced powers.

A few days before the introduction of the bill, ProVladimir spoke with Dmitry Petrosyan, associate professor at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, candidate of philosophy and sociologist, about the system of local government and the political situation in the country and the region.

Political processes, changes in the Constitution, and new draft laws hint that soon local self-governance will essentially cease to be local and will be incorporated into the system of state power in one way or another. How will people at the lower end of the power vertical perceive this? And is there a difference between Vladimir’s fate and the districts?

Dmitry Petrosyan: There is a law on public authority under consideration, which dramatically changes all these relationships, and which, on the one hand, gives the governor the ability to be elected for any number of terms. This sort of follows the president’s ability to run for more terms. Some say that this is specifically for [Moscow mayor] Sergei Sobyanin, who is running out of his term and needs to decide something, but the fact is that governors have been given carte blanche to stay indefinitely. But on the other hand, the president can dismiss any governor. People may not vote for the governor. We’ve seen that happen, too. The governor’s dependence on the presidential administration, rather than on the population, increases even more.

Local authorities are losing their powers significantly, and here the difference will be very much felt between the head of the regional center, which still has resources and a tangible part of the population, and the smaller municipalities, which have fewer resources. Here the local government becomes dependent on the regional government, and the conflict between the governor and the mayor of the regional center, which has arisen more than once in our memory, is eliminated.

Photo from Alexander Avdeev’s personal page on social networks

It seems to have been withdrawn as of today. Both Andrei Shokhin and Alexander Avdeev have shown affection for each other, and there seems to be no conflict. No one knows how this will develop further, but for now it is so. The problem is that this may be done out of positive motives. Because, as we saw in Avdeev’s recent “Direct Line”, people “at the local level” call and put an absolutely simple problem to governors that should be solved by local authorities, but it is not being solved. And it is not being solved because local authorities have no funds for it.

This is our main problem, from which many others grow. Where people live, we do not have funds for anything. We ourselves from our taxes almost nowhere can form the budget. Hence the vertical dependence, which, from the point of view of the central government, is solved precisely by [incorporating local government into the system of de jure state power].

Local self-governance seems to be “free,” but they [the local authorities] have nothing to dispose of. There are no finances for the powers they have been given. In any case, they go to the governor to ask for [money], so let them be subordinated to the governor and he call the shots. From the point of view of the vertical, it makes perfect sense, but from the point of view of governance, it won’t do anything.

It is not normal for people to call the governor and ask him to solve problems with the laying of pipes, the heating of the rural ambulatory. It’s not an issue for the governor. Similar things happen on the president’s “line,” but on a different level. This shows that between the head of the executive branch and the people, the entire institutional structure is essentially unclear as to what it does and why it exists. It cannot pass on information, nor can it solve a problem. This indicates a very low quality of management.

The communication of the head of the executive branch with the people is that a huge number of small and unresolved problems are dumped on him, which he will solve by the fact that funds will be allocated. It’s not a matter of him banging someone over the head and making everything work. It’s simply a matter of needing funds. He promised to solve all problems. It is abnormal for the XXI century, when people must [solve problems] at the expense of self-organization, self-government, elections, where people choose those who solve problems, and if not solving them, they elect another who will solve them. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and that’s the way it’s laid out in the Constitution. In reality, it is a petition to the executive branch. They are taken on the pencil, and then what they can – they will solve. And then, when the authorities cannot persuade people to be vaccinated, this is also evidence of inefficiency.

Can we say that “mistrust” equals “ineffectiveness”? And that as distrust grows, the state weakens? Or does it simply transform itself and not necessarily need the trust of its citizens?

Dmitriy Petrosyan: I do not remember whose saying it is: “A strong state is a state that can offer its citizens the maximum amount of freedom. It simply adjusts some provisions a little bit and keeps things in order. It enjoys such authority that it can grant freedoms to its citizens, who trust the government and support it.

If the government goes down the road of restricting freedoms and using violence against citizens in any case of discontent and opposition…And we see that it comes down to rappers, as it did in the 1980s with rockers. They were also controlled and banned. It’s true that at that time it was easier to restrict them, but it didn’t help the Soviet system anyway. It wasn’t about rockers. And now the attempts to check the lyrics of the rappers… it’s hard to find a worse way to turn the youth away from you. All of this, from my point of view, is a manifestation of the authorities’ lack of confidence in themselves, an attempt to plug any hole from which freedom can pop out.

But in Stalin’s time, for example, the country was not weak, was it? Can we say that we are moving towards a failed state [collapse of state administration] or not?

Dmitry Petrosyan: We are far from a failed state. What do you mean the state was strong under Stalin? The apparatus of coercive pressure was strong and the propaganda apparatus was very strong and fully in the hands of the state. In terms of propaganda now, everything is not so simple and it is not so strong. Naturally, conditions are different.

There is much more informational freedom now than there was then. The level of education and development of the people, as compared to the 30s, is qualitatively different now, I would not compare here either. The system of repressive machine, which was developed then, no comparison with what we have now. True, due to socio-cultural changes there is no such need for mass pressure as there was back then. I guess.
We are far away from the failed state, because we have a stable financial system, whatever one may think of it. By and large, at the expense of the redistribution of resources from a small number of regions to all the rest, and with low demands of the population for quality of life, in principle, we still manage to maintain a normal state and social well-being is more or less acceptable.

The fact that inflation has risen and incomes are not growing at such a rate… So far, we see that people are more or less satisfied with their standard of living. We must admit that the last twenty years have been the most well-fed in the history of Russia. Even though we have been in a recession since 2008, prices are rising and the currency is falling, it is evident that we are still afloat.

If we take the political system, of course we can see that it has already deviated somewhat from what is even written in the amended Constitution. That we certainly have a very diminished role of any electoral bodies at both the regional and the federal level. It turns out to be personalized politics both in the regions and in general. And this is not very good. It reduces the quality of governance.

I can imagine that any manager, say, the mayor, his deputies or deputy governors, could take some unconventional steps, but they are afraid to take them, because it is not clear what this will entail. Everything has to be approved, it is necessary to be more or less quiet and calm, to show loyalty. It also affects quality of management because there is a gap between managers and people which is not filled with anything but people’s complaints when they have such an opportunity. This is a serious problem.

Former Governor Vladimir Sipyagin (LDPR) and Regional Parliament Speaker Vladimir Kiselev (United Russia)

If we look at our regional elite. Here they were waiting for Sipyagin to leave. Here our Vladimir United Russia, they won from the fact that Sipyagin left and sent a new viceroy, or they lost? How to look at it? Of course, this is necessary to ask them. But they won’t say. Obviously, they actively criticized Sipyagin, argued with him, competed with him, and this was normal political life. Now they are deprived of such an opportunity.

The fact that the United Russia party was publicly dissatisfied with Sipyagin doesn’t necessarily mean that they were actually dissatisfied with him, does it?

Dmitry Petrosyan: I think they liked this situation, when they turned into active politicians.

Well, yes, and formally the second person in the region, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly, under Sipyagin became the first person, and now lost this status.

Dmitry Petrosyan: Was it a victory that they forced him [Vladimir Sipyagin] to step down? And did they make him leave? It’s not a victory at all. And it’s very hard to say here, because it’s not just us, and regional elites everywhere are in some kind of incomprehensible position. This is also, from the point of view of governance, a weakening, because where people live, they have to find common ground with the elite, and this elite must have subjectivity. Local authorities must make decisions based on what happens here. Their electoral fate should depend on whether or not they have created the conditions to replenish the budget. This requires investment, the fifth, the tenth, all of which are so difficult to implement for known reasons.

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