Meet the Author | Irina Busygina

‘The regional governors in Russia are not the victims of the regime’

Moscow, September 2023: President Vladimir Putin during a video conference with the newly elected governors of the Russian regions. © IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

In their new book ‘Non-Democratic Federalism and Decentralization in Post-Soviet States’, Irina Busygina and Mikhail Filippov show how modern authoritarian regimes like Russia use supposedly democratic institutions to their benefit and turn them into tools to enable them to survive politically.

Federalism and decentralisation are believed to be instruments that strengthen democratic systems and are not consistent with authoritarian regimes. What makes you challenge this assumption?

The basic aim of the book is to understand better how autocracies function. Unlike other autocracies, modern autocracies copy a lot from democracies. Now when it comes to federalism and decentralisation, for instance, Russia inherited federalism from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the idea was to democratise Russia. Federalism was one of the most important elements in this democratisation process, taking into account how large the Russian territory is. However, Vladimir Putin and the presidential administration managed to change how federalism operates while preserving the surface of the institution. So in our book, we argue that regimes like Russia have transformed the institutions of federalism and decentralisation into instruments that help them stay in control and limit political instability.

How do authoritarian regimes in federalist and decentralised countries control the opposition and civil society?

This is indeed important for any authoritarian ruler. Let’s look at Russia again. The country is too big for Moscow to be able to control the whole territory. Here, the governors do the job. They control their regions, preventing an opposition from emerging in the region and then spreading to the other regions to become nationwide and strong enough to challenge the rule of the regime. This, of course, presupposes that the governors belong to the Putin coalition. We wanted to show in our book that the regional governors in Russia are not the victims of the regime. These are people who are selected by the regime and they clearly derive benefits from that. They don’t come to their position of governor through a free and fair election. Only those candidates who are approved by Moscow can participate in the elections. And the political survival of any governor completely depends upon his loyalty to the Kremlin. But again, they are not passive agents. They take advantage of their position.

Apart from Russia, your two other case studies are Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Why those two countries?

I was working in Kazakhstan for eight months and was very impressed because unlike the Russian regime, which opted for a federal solution, its neighbour took another route after the collapse of the Soviet Union: it’s a unitary state. However, there is a lot of evidence that Kazakhstan is pursuing a policy of informal decentralisation. Although the national authorities nominate the heads of regions (akims) and thus preserve a strict political centralisation, they still apply fiscal and administrative decentralisation. So what was puzzling was that while decentralised and constitutionally federal Russia was moving in the direction of more centralisation with Putin, unitary Kazakhstan was moving in the opposite direction towards more decentralisation. It's also a huge territory but with interesting solutions very different from Russia.

What Kazakhstan and Russia have in common is their personalistic regimes. Ukraine on the other hand never had it. And while democracy failed to take root in Russia and Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it formed and survived in Ukraine. So why is Ukraine so different? Ukraine is also a unitary state, but after the Euromaidan in 2014 the government started to promote decentralisation reforms and it took a very different approach from what we usually understand by decentralisation. They focused not on regions but on local communities. This is extraordinary and very specific for Ukraine.

You argue that decentralisation in Ukraine plays a huge role in building the national resistance that we have been witnessing since the beginning of the war. Can you explain that a little?

First of all, we need to take a look at the concept of resilience. Resilience is a system that can absorb shocks and crisis well. Both systems, Russia and Ukraine, are resilient. This is very interesting. However, there is a difference because on the one hand we have democratic resilience and on the other authoritarian resilience. What does that mean? The war interrupted the process of decentralisation in Ukraine, but it was already under way, so much so that localities became sites of resistance to the Russian aggression. Like I said, the Ukrainian model of decentralisation did not give more power and authority to the regions, but to local communities. I think that's a very smart thing. They wanted to build this grassroots democracy and to give more power to the lowest level. While in Russia, this lowest level has absolutely no authority and no political subjectivity. When Russia attacked Ukraine, the local governments of Ukrainian cities didn't flee. They said, we’re staying and we are with you because we are elected and we are responsible for you. And this sent a very important message: we will defend our land, we will defend our country. This is the consequence of implementing this decentralisation at the lowest level.

You seem to be rather pessimistic about the future of Russia. Is the current system too deeply rooted or is there hope for a change sometime in the future?

I don't think we are pessimists, we just want to warn that even if local protests occur, like recently in Bashkortostan, it does not mean that it is a trend. Modern autocracies should not be underestimated. They know how to imitate democratic institutions and they are not primitive because, for them, this is a matter of survival. If something is a matter of survival, then you use all your brainpower to achieve it. Russia has the ambition to be a great power and to restructure the world. This can be really dangerous and I think Russia is a dangerous regime. It has no moral arguments whatsoever, and absolutely no commitment to international rules and international obligations.

We tried to see whether there are new divisions and new fragmentations in the Russian political space. This can happen and it would lead to the erosion of the current centre-region model. I don't think the model will just fall apart. Only reforms can start a comprehensive transition to another system. The current system cannot be improved, you have to come to another system. But this will only happen if Putin loses popularity. The main premise for the whole thing is that Putin is popular. And if Putin were exchanged for yet another autocrat, things would stay the same. We would have the next Putin, who would only make some personnel changes in the governments. But the situation would change if Putin were to lose his leverage in with the governors. If he's still there in Moscow and still popular, then what hope is there that Russia will lose its resilience? The regions!

The interview was conducted by Yvonne Troll, communications coordinator at ZOiS.

Irina Busygina is a Research Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Harvard University (USA).

Mikhail Filippov is Professor of Political Science at Binghamton University (USA).

Busygina, Irina; Filippov, Mikhail. Non-Democratic Federalism and Decentralization in Post-Soviet States. Routledge, 2024.