“Parade of coronavirus sovereignties”: why regions not ready for freedom?

Experts of the Volga club discussed how Putin's fight against separatism has led to chaos in the regions

In fact, the new configuration of regional policy, which is changing every minute, according to the challenges of the coronavirus epidemic, was discussed at an online meeting by members of the Volga expert staff. The occasion was a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and regional leaders. The correspondent of Realnoe Vremya, after listening to the discussion of political and other experts, found out what sins Moscow is being blamed for today, why the country's subjects were not ready for the freedom that they were deprived of over the past 20 years, and how Putin's hypertrophied fight against separatism has led to chaos in regions with a “parade of coronavirus sovereignty”. As it turned out, according to experts, the only region to which there are no questions today is Tatarstan.

The regions existed in an archaic system of government

Today, politicians are forced to become administrators, including the volunteer movement, while administrators are forced to become politicians, said moderator Vladimir Kutilov at the beginning of the meeting. Regional authorities, he said, found themselves under the microscope at an unusual crisis time. “Municipal household issues” have fallen by the wayside, and now people are evaluating the reaction and professionalism of the authorities on their measures to counter the coronavirus. The main targets of criticism were not municipal or even federal authorities, on which until recently much depended — but regional authorities, which Moscow gave the authority to determine their own package of measures to combat the epidemic and the ability to close or open businesses to preserve the regional economy.

Aleksey Kurtov, the president of the Russian Association of Political Consultants, almost immediately noted that the current non-standard situation was a test of the interaction of various branches of government — whether it was effective or not. And it immediately turned out that interaction at the communicative level often does not work: individual regional authorities are not able or do not want to bring information to their population and explain their own decisions and actions. A striking example of this is the billions of rubles that the Moscow authorities have set aside for curbs in the Russian capital. Perhaps, this is how the budget was set up, or Sobyanin's team is going to support workers and industry in this way, but this was never explained to Moscow residents.

One explanation for the lack of rapid communication between the authorities and the population, according to Kurtov, is that until recently, the regions existed in the system of archaic country management and right now they are forced to switch to modern management, which is associated with dynamic and rapidly changing indicators, including other ways of forming the budget. “The problem of non-interference is very noticeable today," the expert believes.

It is interesting that the participants of the meeting also remembered Tatarstan, where it was planned to start implementing Our Yard programme in April. But now in social networks, Tatarstan residents are divided into two camps: some want to send money planned for the programme to support socially unprotected citizens affected by the quarantine, while others insist that the virus will pass but yards will remain unrepaired.

Why regional authorities were not ready for independence

In the context of the coronavirus political stress test, not all regional authorities were ready for effective communication with citizens, independent distribution of money and effective fight against the epidemic, the club's speakers noted. The population, on the contrary, began to demand more from the leadership of the subjects. There have appeared new high social expectations, especially among the poorest strata, hence the large wave of criticism that is recorded in social networks. According to Mikhail Vinogradov, the president of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, Russians felt that “the black day for which reserves and resources were accumulated (meaning, first of all, the National Welfare Fund — it is now $580 billion) has come.” The coronavirus epidemic has become a real test for both citizens and authorities.

“The main task of regional authorities against this background is not to increase their anti-rating, not to irritate the population, but sometimes to make decisions without focusing on the majority opinion. It is politically correct to show people that we are all in the same boat now. Regional power should become a shoulder to which the people can lean. Anti-Moscow sentiment, which is characteristic of certain regions today (in Siberia, for example), is an unpromising tactic, but it is in tune with the residents of many regions," Vinogradov is sure.

The last time the regions had such freedom was in the 1980s

Nevertheless, the majority of experts living in different regions agree that Moscow is primarily to blame that some governors sometimes react ineffectively, like soldiers, “incompetently” to the crisis situation — that is, the federal government and the notorious vertical built by Vladimir Putin over the past 20 years. Regional administrations have long been accustomed to the fact that Moscow “tightly controls the political field”, gives conclusions and orders. There was no such situation when regions asked what to do and Moscow replied “decide for yourself”. The regions are forced to make decisions on self-isolation and closure of enterprises themselves, learning to be independent, all these decisions have far-reaching consequences.

“Both security forces and local officials are getting used to this. It turns out that for the security forces, the governor is not only the person to be followed or put in jail, but the person whose orders must be followed, the person who something depends on his efforts at a time when Moscow has withdrawn itself! The last time this happened was in the second half of the 1980s," recalls Bashkir political expert Abbas Gallyamov.

“In the fight against separatism, the Kremlin has gone too far”

According to Galliamova, subsequently, the regions will require more autonomy and true federalism. Complaints about Moscow will be the main motive — he did not agree with Vinogradov, the more discontent and envy of the capital is constantly growing. This is caused by a tilt of the federal policy, when the power was behind the centre, which attracted the regions, taking away certain powers from them. The what is known as “cross-linking of Russia”, in particular, bringing regional legislation to federal standards, is well remembered by Gallyamov in Bashkortostan. The coronavirus, he said, has created the opposite situation, became its catalyst — the regions began to understand that the Kremlin overreached in the fight against separatism. As an example, Gallyamov cited the scandalous story of the refusal from above to compulsory study of local ethnic languages in schools, which terribly agitated the Tatar intelligentsia, and they “held a grudge”. The political expert, however, is sure that in the current crisis situation, ethnic regions and their authorities have a higher potential, they are, as before, traditionally “leaders of the process”:

“The current stress test should show how acute the contradictions of the elites are and how much the leaders in the regions are ready to solve problems or are not ready. Coronavirus is definitely bad for its consequences, but it has a plus: it detects problems and now they can be eliminated if you take it wisely.

How freedom went to the heads of some governors

One of the main problems that Alexander Malkevich, the member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, president of the Foundation for the protection of national values, drew attention to is the inability of regional authorities, first, to make the right decisions, and second, to explain these decisions correctly to the people. Often thoughtless statements by local governors provoke panic. Including excessive danger mongering, the hysteria against “newcomers” — the guests from St. Petersburg and Moscow.

“Just a parade of coronavirus sovereignties! In Tomsk Oblast, at most three people fell ill, but the authorities rigidly sent all visitors from Moscow to 2 weeks of self-isolation. Roadblocks are put on the Crimean bridge, and the acting head of Sevastopol signs a decree that puts all the same visitors from Moscow and St. Petersburg outside the law. Not only governors joined this parade of sovereignty but also mayors of regional centres. In Lipetsk, Mayor Yevgenia Uvarkina said that anyone who entered public transport without a mask must be expelled from transport, with such a person, buses will not go anywhere! And why did you decide that masks are needed, they ask her? “I watched a programme on Channel One and made conclusions," he says, “Malkevich listed particularly scandalous cases.

That is why regional authorities need to build a good and effective information vertical, which makes it easier to stop rumours and throw-ins, and fight fraudsters — given that phishing and cyber fraud have increased many times in the wake of fake messages. As a good example, the expert cited Tatarstan, where the authorities caught crooks who sold special passes and tests for coronavirus with home delivery through social networks. Especially Malkevich was pleasantly surprised by the news about a resident of Nizhnekamsk who spread fakes about the closure of the city — the woman herself came to the media, repented and admitted that “I just wanted to joke”. In Tatarstan, the member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation notes, residents have social responsibility, and, most importantly, trust in the authorities: it is trust in the authorities that should keep the regions from sliding into “communication gap”.

“Five people are infected, we will all die, I have decided to caulk the entire region!”

Many governors like this picture: it goes out in prime time, mask on the face, missing only the tube and fins. And he reads it out in a dark voice: “Terrible news, we have five people infected, we will all die, I've decided to caulk the entire region!” Ostensibly, he or his team or advisers think, this should somehow raise his rating. There is a Hitchcock style suspense mongering. Very few people know how to use social networks to talk not only about bad things but also to roll back decisions. Here softened, there. This is not enough. There is a risk that after the restrictions are lifted, a number of regional leaders may get a taste of it. Not everyone in Russia can boast of having a strong leader, as in Tatarstan, where there is also the moral authority of Shaimiev, who can calm people down and quell passions. The experience of Tatarstan can be retransmitted to other regions, it would be nice," the president of the Foundation for the protection of national values praised the team of Rustam Minnikhanov.

Now, according to him, the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation is preparing to form ratings, the top 10 best regions and the top 5 worst — depending on the statements and decisions of certain governors. There are already two regions where almost every action of the authorities leads to turmoil: Krasnodar Krai and Sevastopol. However, by April 9, the list of regions that send “capital newcomers” immediately to quarantine has already grown, including: Bashkiria (only for Moscow), Irkutsk Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast, Krasnodar Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Crimea (for all regions of Russia), Orenburg Oblast (for all regions of Russia), Sevastopol (for Moscow, Moscow Oblast and St. Petersburg), Tomsk Oblast (only for Moscow), Tyumen Oblast.

How will Tatarstan's experience in establishing communication between the authorities and the population help other regions

“This leads to two conclusions — if we protect our country and population, we should consolidate the managerial elites, and the federal government must explain to the regional authorities what is happening in general! But we've the regional elites to their fate, hence these restrictive measures, the desire to please — this is not in Tatarstan, I have relatives there, they say if you explain why you go out on the street or go somewhere — you are allowed. In other regions, this is not the case!” Bashirov remarked regretfully. “I would like to appeal to the regions: do not rely only on Moscow, share your experience with each other. Your task is to consolidate the internal elites, do not excite the population to protest with your unverified actions.

Experts agree that the governor's corps today does not have the necessary experience, while they were not given additional financial and managerial opportunities, but they were given responsibility for everything that they, in principle, should not be responsible for.

“We're practically at war. And in war, there should be an understanding of its functions. Bad is the war where heroism is more important than the general task. This is not how wars are won. If you look at the experience of Tatarstan, it is one of the few regions that has introduced SMS messages for going out, and this decision has been correctly perceived by the population: 1,23 million requests were made for going out. There has appeared some understanding of how to behave. But in other regions, it is unclear whether it is possible to leave or not," Aleksey Kurtov concluded the discussion.

By Sergey Afanasyev