What’s Next for the Four Russias?

The four Russias differ immensely in their levels of urbanization, globalization, technological development, and their promise. Changes in Russia’s political landscape since December 2011, especially the recent regional elections, have highlighted the considerable disparities between Russia’s regions.

The four Russias differ immensely in their levels of urbanization, globalization, technological development, and their promise

Changes in Russia’s political landscape since December 2011, especially the recent regional elections, have highlighted the considerable disparities between Russia’s regions. However, while regional differences are important, the underlying reason for their varying speeds of social modernization is Russia’s center-periphery model. Russia’s population can be divided into three roughly equal in size segments, each consisting of about one third of Russians. The most advanced segment of the population is dispersed among the country’s largest cities (counting only cities with populations over a million, this group accounts for 22% of the population); the semi-periphery includes smaller and medium cities where Soviet values predominate; and then there’s the periphery – the traditional, disengaged population of Russia’s towns and villages. The borders between these groups and places are blurry – the pace of modernization depends on more than just population size, of course – but the differences are clear. The fourth Russia – underdeveloped areas inhabited by 6% of the population – fares worst in the center-periphery model.

These divisions are very stable because they are based on long-term factors. But the ratio between them is changing slowly, and there are short-term factors and trends – both regional and national – that will be felt in the next few years.

National development: Projections for the four Russias

First, the number of young people will fall by almost half due to declining birthrates in the 1990s. There will be fewer youth-fueled protests. The steady migration of younger Russians to the largest metropolitan areas regional centers will offset the youth deficit in Russia 1, but the aging of Russia 2 and Russia 3 will accelerate.

Second, the results of economic stagnation are obvious. In the first half of 2013, industrial production fell in over a third of Russia’s regions and investment declined in half. Macroeconomic conditions are best in the Southern Federal District and worst in the Northwest and Siberia. Investment in the Far East has declined 20% following the completion of several large projects. Troubles are sure to grow in Russia 2’s industrial cities, which have been hardest hit by economic difficulties and declining investment.

Third, regional budgets are buckling. Revenues in the first half of 2013 decreased due to a 20% decline in profit tax revenue and a 15% cut in federal budget transfers. Meanwhile, spending grew 5% to fulfill the president’s promises to increase public sector wages. Budgets are running deficits in two thirds of all regions, and aggregate regional and municipal debt has surpassed 25% of (tax and non-tax) revenue. The regions are reducing investment spending, but it’s not enough.

Fourth, the decline in public sector employment is accelerating. The country’s periphery, or Russia 3, and many regional centers in Russia 2 are disproportionately affected due to their large public sector workforce. Laid off workers have difficulty finding another job.

Fifth, there are more than 50 million Internet users in Russia, and numbers are rapidly growing in smaller cities. Russia 2 is gaining greater access to alternative sources of information.

However, general trends in Russia are just the background. Much depends on the situation in the regions and cities.

Regional factors

The 2012 federal, regional and local elections again revealed what’s driving the transformation of Russia’s political landscape. Let’s start with the most obvious factors – the emergence of an eloquent opposition leader capable of attracting and mobilizing voters with different political views.

But this factor is not predictable. Such leaders exist in Moscow and Yekaterinburg, but not in St. Petersburg or other cities with more than a million people. There are more opportunities for change in regions and cities where there is competition among powerful elites possessing resources and influence. This competition is reviving the political arena and generating new leaders. The quality of regional and city government is no less important – unpopular governors and mayors are fuelling protests. To be sure, there are plenty of bad ones. Direct appointments of governors and managed mayoral elections have reduced the quality of government in the regions, resulting in greater opposition in future elections.

Strong regional identity helps mobilize voters in regional and local elections. This phenomenon is especially pronounced in the Urals and Siberia, as well as in some regions of the Far East. Local identity is stronger in some macro-regional capitals in these and other regions; it is the strongest in Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, and weaker in others.

The higher share of educated people is also fuelling protests. Not only Moscow but all the academic towns surrounding Moscow gave Putin less than half of their votes in the 2012 presidential election.

There are also several geographical factors. Large cities that are well integrated into the outside world are more prone to protests. Putin received less than half of the votes in Kaliningrad, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. It is more difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens who have seen the world and are active participants in globalization.

A long history of urbanization and industrialization – which is the historical-geographical factor at play – doesn’t always contribute to political protests, with the possible exceptions of Yaroslavl and Yekaterinburg. The opposite end of the spectrum is the more agrarian South, where there is greater emphasis on stability and continuity in government.

The combination of these factors is shaping the political situation in the regions.

What to expect and what to do

Political change in Russia 1’s largest cities requires a confluence of several regional factors, as shown by Yekaterinburg. Grassroots organizing is taking place, albeit at different speeds, in all big cities, because this is where the best human capital is concentrated. Tensions are escalating in Russia 2’s industrial cities, especially in the UC Rusal area and the Northwest, but short-term political unrest does not pose significant danger to the authorities due to the difficulty of political organizing in industrial cities. There has been some unrest, but each conflagration has been extinguished with money. Large-scale protests are unlikely in Russia 2.

Public sector layoffs in non-industrial regional centers will encourage labor migration (a common means of adaptation) and alleviate tensions.

Russia 3 will be quiet as a cemetery with the exception of local conflicts in areas of concentrated migration from the North Caucasus. The town of Pugachyov is characteristic of Southern Russian towns and villages, but such conflicts are resolved through a combination of carrots and sticks.

Weakly developed areas of Russia 4 are undergoing arduous transitions from traditional to advanced societies, accompanied by retreats, violence and religious clashes. It is somewhat similar to what “Russian” Russia underwent in the early 20th century at the dawn of modernization and urbanization. It is hard to predict whether tensions will boil over into unrest, but they are clearly growing.

Many analysts believe that the authorities are channeling protests to the bottom rungs of the political ladder, allowing people to vent their frustration in mayoral and even some gubernatorial elections. But this snobbish attitude to the provinces is counterproductive and frankly stupid. Russia is craving decentralization and it should be conducted in two stages – with the transfer of resources and powers down to the regions and on to the local government. The large cities of Russia 1 stand to gain the most. The fight for decentralization must be waged at the federal level down to elections of governors and mayors. The costs will be very high. Decentralization is bound to increase territorial inequality and fragmentation, from regional counties to large cities undergoing modernization. But, on the plus side, large cities do not destroy but rather modernize the entire country.

This article was originally published in Russian in Vedomosti No.175 (3437) September 24, 2013 .

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