Russia: Bad Governance, Imperfect Recipes

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 4/2020. Numerous assessments demonstrate that Russia exhibits many features of bad governance. The political leaders and the authorities have introduced several new programmes to increase effectiveness. However, Vladimir Gel’man argues that without democratisation, the results of the reforms will remain insignificant.

Aleksanteri Insight Talk with Vladimir Gel'man on Thursday 10 December at 2 pm in Zoom. 

Contemporary Russia is governed much more badly than one would expect given its degree of socio-economic development. As demonstrated in numerous recent assessments, Russia exhibits many features of bad governance, including lack and/or perversion of the rule of law, rent-seeking, corruption, poor quality of state regulations, abuse of public funds and overall ineffectiveness of government. I argue that the Russian political regime provides insufficient incentives for improving the quality of governance, and without democratisation, the reforms will not bear major fruit. In theory, not all modern autocracies necessarily result in comprehensive bad governance, although examples of authoritarian good governance are rare. As summarised by Dani Rodrik, “For every President Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore there are many like President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire [now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo]”.

From this perspective, Russia resembles neither Singapore nor Congo. Russia’s authorities are pursuing ambitious developmental goals in various policy areas and promoting a number of state-directed programmes and projects intended to improve the quality of governance. However, the Russian state has failed to produce sufficient positive incentives for good governance. Russia’s top leaders have offered several recipes for improving the quality of governance, which looks like a combination of three major directions, or a 3D solution – deregulation, digitalisation and decentralisation. However, these recipes appear to be imperfect.

Although deregulation as an instrument for the improvement of governance quality is vigorously advocated by many experts, the outcomes of many revisions of numerous norms are selective, partial and insignificant as of yet. Entrenched bureaucrats have few incentives to revise the existing status quo, and it is hard to expect that deregulation will be effectively conducted by the same actors who have previously contributed to over-regulation. Moreover, as deregulation remains a matter at the discretion of the regulators themselves, such efforts may even result in some perverse effects such as ‘regulatory capture’, when regulatory agencies serve influential business interests.

Digitalisation has become a new catchword among Russian state officials and technocratic experts. The advancement of ‘algorithmic governance’ is widely perceived as a mechanism for improving the effectiveness of government. However, against the background of isolationist trends and the Russian leadership’s obsession with threats to sovereignty, digitalisation faces numerous political constraints. This approach is hardly compatible with the ideas of policy effectiveness promoted by the crusaders of digitalisation.

Lastly and importantly, decentralisation remains the most problematic part of the current agenda, related to the consequences of the major political, economic and administrative recentralisation that Russia underwent in the 2000s. Only a handful of Russia’s relatively wealthy regions can afford their own large-scale development programmes. Most recently, the Russian authorities actively promoted projects in participatory budgeting and other forms of public engagement across various localities, but it promotes good governance only by being complementary to electoral accountability, not by being substitutive to it.

The 4D solution, which goes beyond recipes of deregulation, digitalisation and decentralisation and puts democratisation as the number one item on the agenda of advancing good governance, remains beyond the current menu of Russia’s regime. Meanwhile, without major political changes, Russia most likely will be doomed to muddling through pathologies of bad governance without key advancements in policy performance. These programmes and reform plans, however, cannot break the ‘vicious circle’ of bad governance in Russia in the foreseeable future.

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Vladimir Gel’man works as a professor of Russian Politics at the Aleksanteri Institute.