Getting the "Dough" and Saving the Machine: Lessons from Tatarstan

By Sharafutdinova, Gulnaz | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Getting the "Dough" and Saving the Machine: Lessons from Tatarstan


Sharafutdinova, Gulnaz, Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: This case study looks at the evolution of the political machine built in the Republic of Tatarstan, one of the notable subnational units of the Russian Federation. The study reviews the key features of the republican political system as it was constructed under its first president Mintimer Shaimiev and explores the sources of its durability, explaining the longevity of the system after Shaimiev's departure. The study highlights the role of center-periphery interaction and the flexible tactics employed by the local elites with the aim of taking advantage of the changing political environment and opportunities arising in the federal center. To ensure the survival of its political machine, Tatarstan is increasingly relying on federal funds to finance regional and national mega-projects undertaken in the republic.

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Observers have long noted that local politics vary considerably both in nationally democratic and authoritarian settings. (2) The greater systematic integration of subnational and multi-level research into comparative politics is a more recent endeavor and today there is a growing body of scholarship that makes use of subnational analysis in Brazil, Argentina, Russia, India, China, and other countries. (3)

The recent literature on subnational political diversity can be roughly categorized into two groups. One set of scholars has treated subnational polities as autonomous political units and, taking inspiration from national-level studies, has focused on internal and external variables responsible for varying regional political dynamics. Scholars working on Russian regions, for example, brought attention to the role of historical legacies, (4) formal and informal institutions, (5) and foreign aid (6) in shaping subnational regimes. The second group has emphasized the peculiarity of subnational politics as something that occurs within the context of a larger national political scene. Scholars of Latin American politics have, for example, been more analytically cognizant of the fact that subnational political units, being part of a national polity, are influenced by their interaction with the federal government. (7) Gibson's theory of "boundary control" (8) and Gervasoni's analysis of the role of fiscal transfers in maintaining subnational authoritarianism (9) are representative of the approaches that take into account the centrality of center-periphery dynamics for explaining political variation across regions.

The scholars of Russian regions have never denied the influence of the federal center on regional politics, observing that such influence has increased during the 2000s as the Kremlin tried to integrate regional elites under the "power vertical" and noting the unintended consequences of the Kremlin's cadre policies on regional political regimes. (10) No influential generalizations have yet emerged from the studies of the Russian regions that would take into account this peculiar, "nested" character of subnational politics--a system operating within and interacting with a larger system of power. (11) The opportunities for cross-regional conversation in the face of theoretical advancements made with the use of empirical data in other regions remain wide open as well. Considering such opportunities, this study makes a small step toward engaging one of the findings on center-periphery dynamics made outside Russia.

Of particular interest is Gervasoni's rentier theory of subnational regimes that highlights the role of fiscal revenues in determining differences in regional political systems in federal states. Regions that receive fiscal rents (for example, in the form of federal transfers), Gervasoni argued, can enjoy the benefits of spending without the political costs of taxing. Thus, he found that in Argentina the smaller and less developed regions benefitted politically from federal transfers that allowed the rulers to build extensive patronage networks, dependent publics and weaken democratic contestation. …

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