Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 12

A local leader describes the political situation in Novgorod oblast and explains the reasons for the region’s stability

By Igor B. Aleksandrov

Editor’s note: Medieval Novgorod evolved a unique form of participatory government that has been hailed as a potential inspiration for democratic development in post-Soviet Russia. This article, first in a planned series, sets the scene with a look at political life in the region today.

"Novgorod’s main source of wealth is its people. We must do everything we can so that Novgorodians may live decently!" This was the slogan on which Novgorod’s present mayor, Aleksandr Korsunov, fought and won election in October 1996. The sentiment may seem rather woolly, since it does not reflect the interests of concrete groups of the population, yet it won the support of a majority of Novgorod’s voters. Moreover, it reflects the special character of politics in Novgorod today.

First conclusion

To be successful in Russia today, politicians and political organizations must reflect the interests of a wide spectrum of social groups. Otherwise, their efforts will be doomed to failure.

Second conclusion

The fate of reform in Russia depends on the birth of a political idea that can capture the imagination of a majority of citizens. Not long ago, the "specter of communism" determined life in the USSR. It is still present in some people’s heads, but a new Russian idea is already in the air, though it has not yet come down to earth and awaits a fresh gust of democratic wind.

Many of Russia’s political parties reflect only the narrow interests of different social groups. Such parties are doomed to remain small and unable to exert serious influence on political developments. In Novgorod oblast, the total membership of all political parties amounts to only five percent of the electorate. Local government elections reveal the rather surprising fact that independent candidates are significantly more likely to win than representatives of political parties. The reason seems to be that independents appeal to voters because they are perceived as advocating concrete solutions to everyday problems, rather than "political ideas." Today, only independent deputies stand a chance of being elected to the Novgorod City Duma. This phenomenon needs to be appreciated in order to understand the political processes underway not only in Novgorod oblast but in Russia as a whole.

The classic model of democratic society — consisting of a representative legislature, a choice of political parties, and the electorate — is not functioning in Novgorod oblast today. The model seems to have lost its relevance for the Russian State Duma too, since voters have realized that the activities of parliamentary factions bear no relation to the programs that voters supported when they went to the polls.

Third conclusion

The standard democratic model, according to which the government is responsible to an electorate which can influence the activities of its leaders through the ballot box, is not functioning in Russia today. Interaction between voters and government is absent at virtually all levels. The decisive factor in policy-making is instead the political position of those at the helm of the government. The Russian constitution gives the federation’s constituent regions considerable autonomy. It follows that regional governments have a good deal of independence, and the extent of the reforms taking place in each region depends on the political position of local leaders.

The situation in Novgorod oblast is, by contrast with many other Russian regions, remarkably stable. This can be attributed in large measure to the activities of the oblast governor, Mikhail Prusak. Over the last six years, he has sought to unite the efforts of all of the participants in the political process in order to resolve issues within the jurisdiction of the oblast authorities. He has tried to take account of the interests of all social groups and to create mechanisms whereby the population can play a direct role in government and experience democracy at first hand.

A few concrete examples:

(1) Adoption of important oblast legislation is preceded by an extensive discussion. Draft laws are published in the press. Discussion takes place in the so-called Social Chamber (obschestvennaya palata) which is made up of the leaders of Novgorod’s political organizations, with the participation of the governor, the speaker of the Oblast Duma, President Yeltsin’s regional representative, and the drafters of the proposed bills. Amendments proposed by political organizations and individuals are also published in the press. The authors of these amendments may — and, as a rule, do — take part in the sessions of the Oblast Duma at which the legislation is debated. Duma deputies vote on each amendment separately. Laws adopted in this way are more readily accepted by the population, even when they might normally be expected to be unpopular (such as price hikes for civic amenities and utilities). As a result, the oblast authorities have been able to increase budgetary income and offer tax breaks to attract investment into the region. Novgorod oblast is among the leaders among Russia’s regions in attracting inward investment and this in turn has created the necessary conditions for further economic development.

(2) Where possible, power has been devolved downward to the various levels of local government. The oblast’s towns and districts (raions) have received increased powers and greater financial independence. This has encouraged the development of local government. Mayors and deputies of city and raion Dumas are elected by direct suffrage. According to Russia’s deputy minister of nationalities and federal relations, Aleksandr Voronin, "Novgorod oblast compares very favorably with many other Russian regions in that the process of formation of municipal institutions is going on faster here."

The mayor of Novgorod city, Aleksandr Korsunov, explains that the oblast authorities have entrusted the city to disburse the funds the city receives from the federal budget. Today, the city government is completing work on a land survey. This will allow Novgorod to experiment with a new system of taxation. Novgorod has also introduced a unique system of neighborhood organizations which draw citizens into the search for solutions to social and economic problems. This has given citizens the chance to resolve for themselves issues concerning the life of their towns or districts, and made it possible for these questions to be decided on as low a level as possible.

(3) Novgorod State University, named after Yaroslav the Wise, is run as a network of institutions of higher education located in Novgorod, each of which specializes in a specific branch of industry. The president of Novgorod University, Vladimir Soroka, explains that, in the past, professional education used to be oriented towards the staffing needs of the Moscow-based industrial ministries. All that changed with Russia’s transition to the market, the privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises, and the rapid development of small-scale businesses. This removed the branch ministries from the equation. But the fact that labor mobility remains comparatively low in Russia means that regional authorities have a key role in tailoring educational programs to train and re-train specialists to meet each region’s specific needs.

Today, therefore, the university is playing an increasingly active role in the life of the oblast. The Internet has opened access to information sources in many countries, meetings with leaders of Russia’s leading political organizations are being organized, seminars and scientific conferences for political and social organizations are being held, legislative proposals and regional programs are being drafted, such as the Novgorod "Breakthrough to Post-Industrial Society" project, and much more.

The local newspaper, Novgorod, published a typical announcement on June 19 of this year: "The Oblast Election Commission invites you to participate in a conference of party representatives and oblast public and political movements at 10 a.m. on June 27 in the offices of the Oblast Administration on Sofiiskaya Square." The topic of the seminar was "Cooperation between Election Commissions and Political Parties and Social Movements in the Preparation and Holding of Elections."

In other words, the working style of Governor Mikhail Prusak has become the working style of the majority of local government leaders. Today, it is possible to speak not only of the initiative of Governor Prusak, but of a "Novgorod model" of Russian reform, the essence of which is expressed in the idea of creating mechanisms to facilitate interaction between the government and the population. This makes it possible to take the interests of various social groups into account in solving problems and to focus the efforts of all participants in the political process on implementing these decisions.

This is the secret of the stability of the political situation in Novgorod oblast today.

Translated by Mark Eckert