By Paul Goble
Because Vladimir Putin put the regions in charge of fighting the pandemic, many commentators began to speak about “coronavirus federalism,” a new arrangement in which the regions would have far greater power to act. But in reality, the pandemic and Putin’s orders have further cost the regions their ability to act, Pavel Luzin says.
The reason for that, the regionalist writer argues, is that almost all of the responsibilities the Kremlin lay on the regional governments were unfunded mandates. That is, Moscow demanded that the regions do things that the center refused to provide them with sufficient revenue to carry them out (region.expert/no-subjects/).
The result has been that federal transfer payments have not increased sufficiently this year to compensate for the increased budgetary allocations of regional governments, even in the better off regions. That means the regions are increasingly in debt and thus more subject to direction from the center than they were.
Because the regional authorities cannot pay their bills unless Moscow provides them with assistance or Moscow banks provide them with loans, the heads of the regions live in fear of being cut off and thus are even more compelled to do whatever the center demands even if people still talk about “coronavirus federalism.”
In an increasing number of cases, Luzin continues, this has led the regions into a state of “organizational paralysis” in which they cannot take action unless Moscow tells them what to do and provides them with at least some of the money to do it. They are thus kept on a very short leash.
The regional analyst documents all this and then points to something that has not attracted much attention but suggests the way in which Moscow plans to manage the regions in the future. It dispatched special commissions from the health ministry to check whether the regions were “correctly using medical resources.”
This focus on resources reflects the powers over the regions Moscow has gained during the pandemic and also “the most complete organizational impotence” of the regions and more than that of the system of power in Russia, one that gives Moscow the whip hand but ensures that few problems will be addressed until they grow into major ones.
That is because the federal subjects increasingly lack the resources they need to address local and regional problems and their leaders are increasingly afraid to raise these issues in Moscow lest they get in trouble with the central bureaucracy, a clear indication of the deterioration and even death of federalism in Russia.