All around the world the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the relationship balance between countries’ central authorities and peripheral regions. In the US as in Italy, fierce contradictions have been witnessed between regional and national authorities pertaining to the implementation of emergency measures, the shift to the so-called “phase 2” and economic recovery efforts. In the US, at least three coalitions have been formed which have comprised of heads of the states who decided to cooperate on emergency measures and the relaunching of the economy. Likewise, Italy’s developed northern regions, which have suffered drastically from the total lockdowns, have applied significant pressure to the central government to hasten the transition to “phase 2”. The situation in Russia seems to be developing in accordance with a similar logic, as the situation with the pandemic begins to greatly differ within the coutry’s vast territories, more regional authority should be granted. But is it a real power and revival of true federalism? Or is it a simulation of power-sharing aiming to distribute the responsibility as well as prevent a drastic fall in the public’s support for the national leadership? Do regional authorities still have an appetite for self-governance and decision-making after 20 years of centralisation?
First of all, it has to be mentioned that no emergency situation was officially implemented in Russia, i.e. all the institutional frameworks of power have continued to function during the pandemic. Nevertheless, a presidential decree on the 2nd of April gave governors the power to impose restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, to suspend the activities of enterprises and organizations and establish a special procedure for the movement of people and vehicles – except for “vehicles carrying out interregional transportation”. However, according to Russian daily Kommersant, the heads of the regions began to introduce restrictions even before that. Since the end of March the wave of restrictions have been exhibited chaotic characteristics. Some regions banned the movement of transport, some introduced QR-codes and closed the borders. The conflict between federal and regional powers was articulated publicly already on April 6 being addressed mostly to the leader of Chechnya, that became an example of the most rigid measures. Moscow’s mayor Sergey Sobyanin became the new “flagman of restrictions”, especially for neighbouring regions. The “Petersburg politics” foundation has even created a rating of “virus sovereignty”, including 14 regions with the highest rates (i.e. implementing the strictest restrictions), 33 with the middle rates and 36 with a “low” sovereignty. The sovereignty that was granted to implementing restrictions didn’t extend to the issue of economic support. Here the limitations are still centrally given: while the amount of financial support provided at the federal level has been very moderate, making it clear that regions cannot allow themselves to make more during this deep economic crisis.
The end of “non-working days” declared on May 12th during the peak of the spread of the virus (more than 10 thousands infected each day) and transferring the decision on lifting of the restrictions to the regions is the best confirmation that the current situation is not a new federalism, but a poorly concealed attempt to share responsibility for difficult decisions that are not sure to have a “happy ending”. It’s widely discussed that the leadership has failed to provide the two most requested things from the population: the introduction of a state of emergency on the federal level, and direct material support for the whole population. The continuation of “non-working days” would have required at least the second one, but the nation’s economic resources have proved insufficient compared to its economic damage. In fact, the transfer of responsibility to the regions means the refusal of further federal support to non-working economy: since 12 May the continuation of lockdown and its economic consequences are the headache of the governors. Thus, transferring to the “phase 2” in Russia means in fact the withdrawal of the federal leadership from unpopular measures that will definitely have negative consequences. Since now regional governors will be responsible to choose between the two evils: sacrifice either public health or economy and social stability.
The rationality behind these steps is quite evident. In January 2020 we witnessed as President Vladimir Putin in a federal “address” stressed the under-performance of social-economic reforms and low real incomes being the main reason for the population’s distrust of the state, which became quite visible in the level of trust in the president and main political institutions. Both the expectations borne from this speech, and the measures promised were diluted later by the coronavirus crisis. Putin’s personal approval rating fell to 59% in April, a historic minimum. Even if we assume the leaderships intentions were sincere at the beginning of the year, the impact of the virus coupled with falling oil prices have deprived them any real means to improve the level of prosperity of its citizens. In the same manner, the ongoing pandemic has hindered the government’s ability to rebuilding trust. Their only chance to do so would have been the direct involvement of the presidential team in saving each family’s social and economic position.
Thus, this “true federalism” in Russia is really just the result of a decision-making stalemate in a situation where there can be no “positive result”.