By Valeri Ledyaev (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow) & Alla Chirikova (Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow)
Power is always difficult to study, especially in the countries with strong authoritarian tendencies. The most accessible to political sociologists are power practices in local communities where it is possible to get information from those who are directly involved in the governmental process and well aware of the real power hierarchy and relationships within political stratum.
The relationship between the legislative and executive branches of local government is the key aspect of power in the Russian local communities. Formally the branches are equal and independent of each other. However local actors have natural aspirations for leadership and power since it can increase their capacity to govern and implement social and/or corporate interests.
Why the local executives usually dominate over the local legislatures? What factors determine the variability in the nature and forms of this domination? What elements accounts for the non-typical relationship in exceptional cases. What is the role of personality in these relationships? The answers to these questions concern a number of controversial issues related to the consequences of the municipal reforms, the role of regional and federal authorities in local politics, and the degree and prospects of relative autonomy of local actors in the context of a general strengthening of authoritarian tendencies in Russian politics.
Our research, “Power in a small Russian town,” has been executed in 2011-2015. The basic material was obtained in the course of 88 in-depth face to face interviews with local politicians, public officials, businessmen, local and regional experts in seven local communities in three different Russian regions.
In four out of seven local communities studied the executive bodies dominate over the legislative ones. This seems quite natural: the ratio of resources, the politics of the federal and regional authorities, and established traditions, allow us to consider this type of relationship as a norm, while the other types of relationship discovered in the three other communities are exceptions.
The nature of domination of the executives over the legislatives in the four communities was not identical. If the difference in resources and power potential between them is significant and well recognized by both sides, domination can take place without visible efforts. Such relationships occurred in one of the towns of the Ivanovo region. Domination was based on the dependence of the deputies-businessmen (they constitute the majority of the legislature) on the executive body in promoting their everyday personal and corporate interests. State and municipal employees also feel a natural concern for their jobs as they are well aware of what happens to those who dare to conflict with those in power. We denoted this case as “domination based on coercion”.
If the dependence of the deputy corps on the executive body is not very significant the leaders of the executive have to use their resources more actively. A set of these resources and forms of their application is approximately the same and includes coercion, bargaining, persuasion, and manipulation. However their configurations in particular local communities differ; that defines the peculiarities of the domination of the executives in the studied cases. Reflecting these peculiarities we propose the following formulations – “bargaining from the position of strength”, “domination based on persuasion” and “domination under confrontation”.
The relationships between the branches of power in the three other local communities were substantially different. In one small town in the Perm region the most influential actor in the community represented the local council. This nonstandard situation became possible because before the introduction of the position of the city-manager, the current head of the local council was the mayor who combined both representative and executive positions and retained a large set of power resources. We called this case “quasi-domination of local council over the executive body”.
In the two local communities for a considerable time there has been a relative parity between the branches of local government. In one of the towns in Ivanovo region leaders of the executive body actively but unsuccessfully tried to make the local council “docile”. For almost one and a half years there has been an open confrontation between the local legislature and the town administration. Frequent changes of leadership in the executive branch (four different heads in 3 years) significantly weakened its position in relationships with the representative body; temporary, random figures without solid personal resources were not able to build adequate relationships with the deputies.
Temporary parity between the two branches of local government has also been observed in district of the Perm region. But in this local community there were no serious conflicts between the executive and the legislative bodies. This situation occurred after the dismissal of the district city-manager by the regional authorities: the two branches rallied in the face of the “external threat” while the quarrels within the local political and administrative elite were suspended or moved to the background.
Both cases eventually ended in the “victory” of the new executive elites but the previous period was fairly long.
Thus, the study confirms that the executive bodies in the Russian local communities have significant advantages in resources over local representative institutions. However, these advantages do not automatically lead to their domination over the legislatures since personal factor plays an especially important role in Russian politics. All three atypical cases demonstrate that departure from the traditional model takes place when the leadership of the executive branch has no proper experience, authority and/or necessary personal qualities; the deviation from the traditional model may also be caused by some events that dramatically alter the context and/or configuration of actors.
Due to the strong personal component of Russian politics, the different institutional environment of local communities has not become a decisive factor in determining the differences of real power practices. This largely explains why the institutional reforms and innovations do not always provide the realization of the goals of the reformers since informal resources and practice are often much more important and effective than formal rules in determining the relationship between the key actors of local politics. Therefore, despite the efforts made by the Russian elite to unify the local power structure, variation in local political practices persists.