On schools and verticals

With the launch of the “School of Mayors” in November, the Kremlin took another step towards the corporatization of public administration in Russia. This happens alongside a severe restriction of local democratic institutions. This would carry risks even in a more meritocratic public administration system, let alone Russia’s.

November 20 saw the launch of the “School of Mayors” at the Senezh management workshop near Moscow. The school is a project of RANEPA, the presidential public administration academy, and, according to the plans, will educate around 320 mid-level municipal public servants about topics such as operational effectiveness, territorial development, municipal finances and elections – likely conducting regional and federal elections, as the authorities have been rolling back mayoral and local elections across the country for several years.

These modules will be taught in cooperation with various government ministries, as well as state-owned entities active in the field of development policy, such as Rosatom (which oversees the development of the Northern Sea Route) and VEB (a major investment vehicle). Importantly, Dialog, an organization linked to Kirienko through Alexey Goreslavsky, his former subordinate, which monitors public sentiment in the regions through data collection and the so-called Centers of Regional Management (TsUR), will also play a major role in the curriculum, as will deputy governors – many of them also coordinated by Kirienko and his ally, Alexander Kharichev, the head of the presidential directorate that supports the State Council.

Both the name and the structure mimics the “School of Governors”, an earlier Kirienko project, set up in 2017, which aimed to underpin the Kremlin’s revamp of Russia’s gubernatorial corps. In particular, the School of Governors helped to speed up the already ongoing replacement of representatives of local elites with technocratic outsiders (also referred to as “Varangians”) all while making governors’ professional backgrounds and governing style more uniform. This happened in parallel to the introduction of a more business-like system of governance, in which governors were expected to meet key performance indicators (KPIs) set by the Kremlin, with the promise of later being able to move on to more lucrative positions in the federal government. It also coincided with the Kremlin gradually clawing back even more fiscal income and self-governance rights from regions.

More than 400 public servants have studied in the School of Governors, and sure enough, a fair number of them – 50 as of this year – eventually became governors, typically in regions where they have no roots, with the implied promise that they are eventually going to be rotated to a federal position in case they perform well. But often alumni have to jump additional hoops even to become governors. For instance, Vitaly Khotsenko who this year became the 49th graduate to be appointed to head a region – Omsk – had to spend several months in the occupied Donetsk region of Ukraine as the head of the occupation government before his appointment.  Several graduates have served as city managers or mayors.

Efficiency as a euphemism

All This begs the question of why a separate School of Mayors is even needed.

The official justification describes the ideal mayor as “a leader who is trusted and followed”, which is difficult to square with the scaling back of direct mayoral elections and the general weakness of municipal finances. Municipal budgets rely significantly on transfers from regional budgets, even more so than the average region relies on the federal budget. For regional budgets as a whole, the share of interbudgetary transfers has been hovering around 20 percent (with major differences between a handful of rich regions and a larger number of poorer regions where the share of transfers can be over 80 percent). For municipal budgets, this has been, on average, between 63 and 67 percent over the past five years. Municipalities have not had access to the same type of preferential federal budgetary loans as regions, to cover their needs either (only to short-term treasury loans to tide them over in case of disruptions).

Regions already exercise significant power over municipal finances, and as the war forced many regional budgets to tighten over the past year, several examples suggested that regional governments have started to cut back on municipal transfers that has threatened to affect municipal functions enough to prompt Putin himself to call on the government to find a way to shore up municipal finances. (Stavropol governor Vladimir Vladimirov also raised the difficult fiscal situation of municipalities in the debate on the 2024 federal budget).

The real purpose of launching the School of Mayors is likely to support the ongoing strengthening of the vertical of power by creating a public administration elite that is more or less uniform and tightly networked. Recent research suggests that the ability to reduce opposition at the municipal level is an important element in how successful governors are in implementing (usually federally mandated) policies.  Even if the authorities will not replace each and every mayor by School of Mayors alumni outright, they may be able to turn to this pool to appoint city managers to problematic (read: relatively pluralistic) cities, such as Novisibirsk or Tomsk where the recent scrapping of direct mayoral elections after opposition gains in local elections triggered protracted crises.

Another plausible purpose of the school could be to keep governors in check, but in a manner controlled by the federal government, without allowing local power brokers to challenge them. A similar thinking seems to be behind a recent bill allowing governors to dismiss mayors: they would be able to do so a month after they have reprimanded the mayor in question, provided the mayor does not fix the problem for which they were reprimanded, thus leaving federal curators time to intervene if they deem necessary.

As a deputy of the Liberal Democratic Party – perhaps sarcastically, perhaps seriously – pointed out, it was better to give governors wider powers over mayors than it is to allow regional authorities to arrest mayors. This indeed happens often: a 2019 study by the Committee of Civil Initiatives (KGI) found that 15 percent of Russian mayors were arrested after leaving their position. Just this year, the authorities have arrested at least eleven sitting or former mayors, including of major cities such as Belgorod and Izhevsk (not to mention former Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman, a special case who was arrested due to his opposition and anti-war activism). Others – such as the mayors of Vorkuta, Pechora and Chita – chose to volunteer to participate in the war in Ukraine to avoid an impending arrest or dismissal on other grounds (which did not save Pechora’s mayor, Valery Serov, from arrest). A 2022 analysis by Noah Buckley et al. showed that the mayors’ performance was not a good predictor of whether they will end up being arrested, however, popular – typically directly elected – municipal leaders were less likely to end up in prison, underlining the risk-avoiding behavior of Russian authorities.

Indeed, beyond the Kremlin’s effort to reduce reliance on regional elites, all the above also fit perfectly into the wider goal of the political demobilization and atomization of voters, a key pillar of Putinism. Apart from the replacement of directly elected mayors with city managers appointed from (and accountable to) higher echelons of public power, this also includes plans such as the extension of the TsUR system to municipalities, scrapping of local election supervision bodies, as well as doing away with directly elected municipal representative institutions.

Originally, the second part of a 2021 public administration reform foresaw the elimination of the lowest of the two levels in Russia’s current municipal public administration system, scrapping thousands of self-government units and their associated representative bodies in the process. Regardless of the shelving of the original reform bill last year, several regions have started rolling back elections to municipal councils (e.g. Transbaikal, Chelyabinsk and Kurgan) and folding free-standing municipalities into larger administrative units altogether (e.g. Pskov and Leningrad), in line with the original objectives of the reform. There is little doubt that these are experiments, surveying the extent to which the authorities can expect a backlash when the original reform is relaunched.

Not so easy

As regards the replacement of representative democracy with digital, centralized, corporate authoritarianism, the problem with this is twofold. First, as we have seen several times over the past years, the system is inflexible. Regional and local leaders are not supposed to assume political responsibility towards voters, but they are supposed to be reacting to problems flexibly as they arise. But they are not always able to do so, especially when crises arise unexpectedly and guidelines from the federal government are unclear. Second, apart from citizens venting their frustration, the institutions of representative democracy have also provided local power brokers a way to strengthen their positions. For instance, the takeover of “Varangians” and their allies in various executive and legislative institutions has, in several regions, also meant that local interest groups had to cede territory to “outsiders” in public procurement contracts. In some regions, where elites have been able to organize themselves – so far typically regions that are not priorities for the Kremlin, such as Khakassia and the Altai Republic – they have tried to fight back. Similar considerations drive “systemic” opposition politicians, typically (but not exclusively) from the Communist Party to support bringing back direct mayoral elections in several regions (e.g. Novosibirsk, Perm, Chelyabinsk and Komi).

But even beyond this, the new system’s central promise – that competent and loyal public officials will be able to elevate their careers and clinch more powerful positions is far from guaranteed. Take the School of Governors. Even though five graduates were appointed to the federal government as ministers and twenty as deputy ministers, virtually no one among those appointed as governors since 2017 received a federal promotion. Federal promotions often depend on personal connections to top-level officials, there is a significant oversupply of candidates, and over the past two years the war has made the Kremlin even more cautious than usual about personnel changes.

Similarly, a regional-level promotion is also far from guaranteed. True, at the regional level there is more turnover in positions of power (as KGI’s analysis also suggests), and the 2021 public administration reform allows the Presidential Administration to control appointments to the most important positions in regional governments, which would theoretically allow it to promote successful mayors. However, “Varangian” governors usually come in with their own team, and presidential plenipotentiaries that oversee several regions on behalf of the Kremlin often also have their own agenda.

This is the context in which the launch of the School of Mayors should be viewed. As in several other cases, a reform promises to set up an institution to make public administration more efficient and professional. In fact, however, the main purpose is likely to help the federal government further expand Russia’s digital authoritarianism to local politics, which has remained significantly more competitive (albeit also more cash-strapped) in recent years than regional and federal-level politics. And ultimately, these attempts risk running into the realities and the intransigence of Russia’s personalist autocracy, circumstances that are unlikely to be repaired without major political changes.

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