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Non-state actors' involvement in Russia is encouraged – but controlled

Researchers have re-examined state–civil society relations in Russia. They find that governance networks including non-state actors have emerged. Moreover, even with increasing authoritarianism, authorities involve non-state actors in everyday decision-making.

Jan-Tore Berghei Published: Updated:
Moscow, Russia

Network governance, cooperative ventures between state and non-state actors to solve difficult political issues, has been described as an ever increasing phenomenon in politics worldwide. However, political science literature often consider Russia and its “hybrid regime” a special case. Now researchers argue that the conceptual tools used to study such governance arrangements in the West could be applicable in Russia too.

Researchers have published findings from the Norwegian-Russian Netgovru project in two peer-reviewed journals, and a book based on these findings is forthcoming. A symposium in the peer-reviewed journal East European Politics explores four Russian policy areas: migration and integration; drug policy; child protection; and environmental impact assessment (EIA) in the Russian regions of St Petersburg, Samara, Krasnodar and Irkutsk.

Key findings from the project

  • The Russian state does not always act as a unitary, hierarchical command-like unit
  • Even with increasing authoritarianism, Russian authorities involve non-state actors in everyday decision-making
  • Scenarios that have viewed Russian governance as exclusively dominated by command, coercion and informal, “dark” power networks have not materialised in these studies
  • Non-state actors in the environmental field are often considered “troublemakers” standing in the way of economic development
  • Non-state actors are more motivated in participating in governance networks than state actors
  • State-based actors act as active “gatekeepers” in these networks, and these networks have strong power asymmetries
  • Conceptual tools used to study governance in other regions and contexts could be useful in studies of Russian politics

East European Politics is a peer-reviewed journal, which publishes articles on the government, politics and international relations of the post-communist space. The 2016 spring issue of the peer reviewed journal Demokratizatsiya also puts a focus on network governance in Russia with several articles on the subject, written by scholars of the Netgovru project.

East European Politics, Volume 32, Issue 2, 2016 (Free access until 31 July 2016)
Demokratizatsiya, Volume 24, Number 2, Spring 2016

A new approach to Russian governance

Jørn Holm-Hansen

– The premise of our research is that one could fruitfully study Russia by employing concepts familiar in the study of governance worldwide, including the tools of network analysis, says senior researcher Jørn Holm-Hansen at NIBR.

Holm-Hansen has co-authored an article that applies the analytical framework to an initial synthesis of findings from studies of Russian governance, with .

The authors question the widely held notions of Russian exceptionalism as regards its state–society relations, arguing that the conceptual tools used to study governance in other regions and contexts could be useful in studies of Russian politics.

The Russian political system is not unique, the authors argue. Former state socialist countries have experienced two and a half decades of functional differentiation, specialisation, and privatisation. The reformation of the public sector strengthens the case for re-examining Russian state–civil society cooperation through a critical application of network governance theory.

– We do not concern ourselves with “dark” networks such as corrupt, complex, overlapping, and often conflictual relations among state and corporate elites, or the equally convoluted relations between the state and civil society organizations funded by foreign donors and forced to register as “foreign agents”, Holm-Hansen continues.

Jonathan S. Davies

Rather, they focus on the poorly understood practices of interaction, or networking, between the state and domestic civil society groups. The project puts its attention to core issues in “traditional” scholarly works on Russia, but from a novel standpoint.

The researchers argue that the seemingly authoritarian and paternalistic mode of governance in Russia includes a host of different interactive practices, including co-optation, negotiation, and networking between state and non-state actors.

– It is this observation that leads us to focus not on what differentiates Russia, but rather what it might have in common with other countries in seeking to handle policy challenges through more or less authentic interactions with civil society actors, says Davies.

Network governance

Non-state actors more motivated

Aadne Aasland

Another article authored by Aadne Aasland, Mikkel Berg-Nordlie and Elena Bogdanova dives into the subject matter with case studies on network governance in three areas of welfare policy in St. Petersburg and the Samara region. They argue that non-state actors display stronger motivation for network participation than state institutions. To the latter, this is just one of many ways of influencing policy, and not even among the most important, they claim.

– Non-state actors are, in general, clearly interested in network participation. It gives them direct and legitimate access to the authorities. It also involves certain important benefits: possible impact on policy development, access to subsidies, access to information, access to professional networks, heightened symbolic status, and so on, says researcher Mikkel Berg-Nordlie, NIBR.

Mikkel Berg-Nordlie

In many cases, however, the resources and input provided by non-state network participants are also valuable to authorities for solving complex social issues. Some challenges require discussions by professionals, some events have to be organised, and the authorities may have a lack of resources to implement all of the policy measures for which they are responsible. In a country with an unaccountable executive power governance networks also give legitimacy to state decisions and an impression of popular involvement in policy development, the authors argue.

– Our study confirms that governance networks play a certain role in the policy system, but also that this role is quite limited and indirect, and always subject to the goodwill of the state, concludes senior researcher and leader of the Netgovru project Aadne Aasland.

State-based actors are active network controllers

An article by Marthe Handå Myhre and Berg-Nordlie delves into Russian media discourse on the inclusion of non-state actors in governance. They find a general pro-networking position in Russian media, a hegemonic idea about the relationship between state and civil society in Russia that revolves around mutual dependency and necessary cooperation to solve complex social problems.

Marthe Handå-Myhre

– Articulations critical to network governance are rare to come by, says Berg-Nordlie. When they do appear, they demonstrate fears of NGO co-optation– but the hegemonic idea of state/non-state cooperation as a positive and necessary activity overwhelms any voiced critique.

Russian media frequently point out that the state is the only and rightful organizer of civil society’s involvement. This could be read defensively as expressing an innate fear of non-state takeover from the side of the state but, as the authors argue, perhaps more realistically as a result of worries that the Russian populace might perceive the state as losing control through its increasing involvement of non-state actors in an increasing range of policy areas.

– The underscoring of the Russian state’s ultimate authority also reflects the type of network governance model that has emerged in Russia; one that indeed tends to include state-based actors as active network controllers that keep the reins of decision-making power, and the power to pick and choose partners from civil society, in their own hands, Berg-Nordlie and Handå Myhre conclude.

Gatekeepers

Strong power asymmetries and environmental “troublemakers”

International observers often give attention to the Russian government’s environmental policy. An article in the East European Politics symposium authored by the German scholars Sabine Kropp from the Freie Universität Berlin and  Johannes Schuhmann, researcher at the Henrich Heine Universität Dusseldorf, details collaboration between state and non-state actors in environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

Scenarios that have viewed Russian governance as exclusively dominated by command, coercion and informal, “dark” power networks have not materialised in their studies. This, the researchers argue, cleared the ground for a rethinking of governance in non-democratic regimes.

Sabine Kropp

– Even with increasing authoritarianism, Russian authorities involve non-state actors in everyday environmental decision-making in order to acquire more precise time-specific and place-specific knowledge about natural resources and the specific interests of local communities, says Kropp, Professor and Chair of German Politics at FUB.

Moreover, even if authorities resort to coercive tools, they do not always succeed. Confirming studies of global environmental governance, the case studies revealed that also in Russia international regimes and organisations, multinational companies and international environmental NGOs have an impact on national environmental politics by counteracting the authorities’ efforts to turn horizontal governance into pure vertical governance.

– Our case studies focused on projects with a large environmental impact, high economic value, and strategic importance to the regime, raising the incentive to avoid civil society participation and prevent opposition to the projects, says Kropp.

The state and investors dominated networks in the studies, Kropp and Schuhmann argue, and the networks studied featured strong power asymmetries. Nevertheless, they revealed that even the mandatory EIAs exhibit different types of public–private collaboration. When conducting EIAs, staff members of enterprises, more or less state-controlled, have to negotiate with civil society and, thus, become part of governance networks.

– The case studies show that civil society organisations seldom get acknowledgment as equal partners but are in the majority of cases regarded as troublemakers foiling the economic interests of the representatives in these networks. State actors and investors then form alliances against NGOs, thus strengthening given power asymmetries, says Kropp.

Protester

Sometimes, however, NGOs could negotiate concessions from the federal and regional administration and the investors. Rarely were investors themselves interested in collaboration. The small number of cases, however, does not allow for assessing the relative distribution of cases among the three patterns. One can also make a reading of this research as a contribution to a deeper understanding of how the “power vertical” shapes Russian multi-level governance and how it relates to governance networks operating at subnational levels. As was shown, governments and administrations on the regional and federal levels act according to the principle of expediency.

Pragmatic governance

Johannes Schuhmann

Even though the coercive and distributive capacity is concentrated at the centre, the federal government only intervened selectively in sub-national policy-making. It pragmatically decides on imposing the tools of the “power vertical” on sub-national governance or not. This helps to explain why the case studies investigating the EIAs revealed remarkable intra-regional, project-based differences.

– We also find that very often the state did not act as a unitary actor. This finding indicates that despite the fact that Russia features a “centralized party-based subnational authoritarianism” today; leaders at the different territorial levels – mostly co-opted into the dominant party United Russia – do not necessarily share the same policy positions when it comes to making concrete decisions, says Kropp.

Consequently, they argue, the multi-level institutional setting offers opportunities – albeit limited ones – to private actors to work with authorities at different levels.

– These findings should caution us about the assumption that Russian governance is generally shaped by a military-like chain of command running from the centre to the regions. Rather, components of governance are interwoven in subtle ways, Kropp and Schuhmann conclude.

The studies produced a picture of collaboration between state, business, and civil society governed by manipulation and coercion, but also discovered a few cases that were truly cooperative. The studies also indicate that apart from the existence of counter-forces and the authorities’ interest in making use of civil society’s resources, in the end it is at the discretion of state authorities to let governance networks emerge and survive.

In the Netgovru project a team of Norwegian, Russian, German, Finnish and British researchers applies network governance theory as an analytical tool to study federal, regional and local policy-making processes in Russia. The project has resulted in, among others, a symposium in East European Politics, a special section of the journal Democratizatsiya, and the group is working on a book to be published by Palgrave. The Research Council of Norway has funded the 4-year Netgovru project (grant number 220615) through the NORRUSS programme.

About the project

In the Netgovru project a team of Norwegian, Russian, German, Finnish and British researchers applies network governance theory as an analytical tool to study federal, regional and local policy-making processes in Russia.

The project has resulted in, among others, a symposium in East European Politics, a special section of the journal Democratizatsiya, and the group is working on a book to be published by Palgrave.

The Research Council of Norway has funded the 4-year Netgovru project (grant number 220615) through the NORRUSS programme.