Capital Trap: What authorities should fear if Sergei Sobyanin wins reelection

By Mikhail Komin. Originally published in Republic.

Translation by Claire Haffner

Sergei Sobyanin’s slogan in his campaign for mayor of Moscow is to make the capital “even better” — safer, greener, and more spiritual. Like in many other Russian cities, the current mayor’s status allows him to run his campaign on the idea that he is an “experienced manager” who has already done a lot for his city but wants to finish what he has started.

However, everything achieved by Sobyanin — from 30 new metro stations and kilometers of bike lanes to the new Zaryadye Park — was only made possible by a colossal increase in Moscow’s budget. Over the course of eight years, Moscow’s budget expenditure has almost doubled, and today it amounts to approximately 25 per cent of all other regions’ budgets combined. Expenditures are expected to increase to 2.5 trillion rubles by 2021. In 2017, 170,000 rubles were spent per resident in Moscow, compared to the nationwide average of 60,000 rubles.

An overconcentration of resources in the capital guarantees that the mayor will have Muscovites’ favor, and this dynamic will likely serve Sobyanin well in the upcoming elections. But is this a good thing in the long term? Even if the city’s administration succeeds in maintaining a similar level of expenditure in the future, this won’t solve the problem of political stability. On the contrary, research shows that such an overconcentration of resources and people in the capital creates long-term risks for the political elite, and there is reason to believe that these risks concern the current Russian government as well.

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Fast urbanization leads to protests

Authoritarian regimes fear unrest, especially in capitals, where any protests would be in dangerous proximity to main government buildings. In an effort to pacify any possible discontent amongst citizens, dictators usually redistribute budgets in favor of the capital, a policy that authoritarian regimes in Africa and Latin America have followed for the last 50 years. To buy the loyalty of urban populations, autocrats improve the quality of life, medicine, infrastructure, and public services. As a result, however, improving the urban environment only creates greater possibilities for collective action in the capital.

American political scientist Jeremy Wallace was able to demonstrate that in more densely populated metropolises, civil unrest, protests, and strikes occur much more frequently and are much easier to organize, since local frustration builds and spreads faster. Modern urbanism also contributes to this process: open spaces, parks, and developed infrastructure simplify communication and expand the personal social networks of every individual (the “buzz city” effect described by economist Michael Storper). It is significant that the “velvet” revolutions in post-Soviet countries and the events of the Arab Spring, which resulted in the fall of various authoritarian regimes, were centered in capitals.

According to research conducted by American political scientists about the motives for protest activity among Russians during the mass protests of 2011-2012, improved conditions for collective action due to the density of social networks allowed for more protest opportunities — the deciding factor for whether people chose to march was whether their friends were protesting — and the rapid spread of protest identity. What’s more, not long before the protests on Bolotnaya Square, the Moscow Mayor’s Office rolled out an urbanization program aimed primarily at the creative class. It’s worth mentioning that the mayor’s current policy on the reconstruction of Moscow’s city center — transforming Moscow from a “city of drivers” into a “city of pedestrians” — could also increase the potential for collective action.

Overconcentration interferes with maintaining the allegiance of the urban population

In Jeremy Wallace’s work mentioned above, he analyzes the experience of all nondemocratic regimes after World War II and finds that on average, regimes with densely populated capitals are faster to collapse. Wallace sees the cause of this not only in the increased possibility for collective action, but also in the fact that a policy of resource redistribution in the capital’s favor sets a trap for autocrats.

If the quality of life in the capital improves, it acts as a magnet to attract people from the rest of the country. As a result, the population in the capital grows, infrastructure and related urban problems increase, and it becomes more and more expensive to buy the allegiance of the urban population. The government is then forced to appropriate even more money from the other territories, which alienates voters in small cities and rural areas. But it’s also difficult to meet the needs of those in the capital, especially since their needs are constantly increasing.

Moreover, the more concentrated the population, the easier it is to organize a protest. In a city of 10 million you only need every hundredth person to take to the streets in order to get a protest 100,000 strong.

Serious tensions can also form on the outskirts of capitals or right outside the city limits. Research in China and Latin America shows that overconcentrated populations in metropolitan centers can lead to “ghettoization”, the emergence of poor neighborhoods in the city’s outskirts where marginalized groups of the population are concentrated. This centripetal motion appropriates resources from the closest regions which then become a problem for the capital. In Moscow, a possible trigger for such ghettoization is the construction of crowded “sleeping districts” on the city’s outskirts and in the Moscow Oblast. The unintentional emergence of the agglomerations Koroleva and Mytisch — known collectively as “Korotischi” — is a possible example of future tensions brought about by the current policy of concentrating resources in Moscow.

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The concentration of resources in the capital spurs elite competition

The stability of authoritarian regimes is largely dependent on their leaders’ ability to secure the loyalty of various groups of elites by redistributing resources. This is exactly how political scientist Thomas Pepinsky explains the fall of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia and the comparative stability of Mahathir Mohamad’s regime in Malaysia. Mohamad reshuffled the elite in such a way that the groups who benefited from internal economic development were the winners, whereas Suharto relied on externally-oriented elites and lost power. In both cases, the concentration of resources in the capital created serious risks for the regime at times of crisis. Some of the fiercest competition amongst elites was for these very resources, and the “reshuffling” of the elite for the survival of the authoritarian regime was impeded.

On the one hand, as research into the Indonesian case demonstrates, the concentration of the majority of resources in a dictatorship’s capital is a natural process. Economically active groups try to transfer their capital closer to their leader where there is direct access to regulators and law enforcement agencies. Bureaucratic institutions usually work faster and better in big cities, and this influx of capital increases the revenue of these cities’ budgets.

On the other hand, when the capital’s expenditure budget is equivalent to a quarter of the budgets of all other regions, this creates the potential for elite conflict. If there is division in the elite or the flow of rental payments is cut off, the fight that breaks out amongst elites will be for the biggest pieces of the resource pie. This makes the already tricky situation in capitals even riskier (in part due to overheating and protest potential) and harder to regulate with the usual elite reshuffling.

Political strategists often maintain that Sergei Sobyanin manages to skillfully balance the interests of different groups when “dividing” the capital’s budget. The expensive projects undertaken by the Moscow Mayor’s Office, including the reconstruction of the center, the My Street program, and renovation, indicate an interest in the increase of rental flows. Whether or not that’s the case, containing society’s discontent — even if the projects satisfy the majority of elite groups — isn’t always feasible, as was made obvious during the protests against the demolition of five-story apartment buildings. If elite opposition to the Moscow budget grows and the Moscow budget continues to increase to the detriment of other cities’ budgets, this will create additional risks for the authorities.

Powerful capitals demand greater autonomy

As a general rule, dictators want to centralize their power, including in the case of a federation. But the concentration of resources in the capitals of federations ultimately causes a gradual increase in the autonomy of capitals as well as other regions.

Research from nine Latin American countries from 1945 to 2000 demonstrated that the main drivers of democratization were precisely these capital cities, who demanded an expansion of their powers any time they had the opportunity or any time they saw an authoritarian regime weakening. The concentration of capital and human resources gave more weight to their demands. Governors as well as mayors of capitals, whatever their political persuasion, one way or another act in the interests of the territory under their control, simultaneously increasing the territory’s resources and their own political capital. When discussing the territories of capitals, even powerful dictatorships are forced to contend with the capital’s intentions. For example, the military juntas in Brazil and Argentina were unable to undermine the autonomy of the capital regions, which acted as drivers of democratization for their countries. Since the capitals in these countries don’t always enjoy particular status, the mayors of the capitals, fighting for their own interests, also act as drivers for the redistribution of power from the central to regional level, or from the local level across the whole country, as happened in Venezuela and Chile.

The opposition’s success in capital elections and the subsequent fight between local deputies for more power also contribute to the democratization of a country. In the majority of biographies of famous opposition leaders in Latin American authoritarian regimes, there are episodes connected to participation in local elections in the capital. Two of the major figures of the last revolution in Venezuela, Leopoldo López and Henrique Capiles, participated in elections in the capital and held political posts in capital municipalities. After such successes, they tested their strength in the federal elections and made a fairly strong showing, earning more than 40% of the vote.

Amongst today’s contenders for the post of Moscow Mayor there are no strong candidates from the opposition, though in the last municipal elections in the capital, the combined efforts of the opposition’s non-parliamentary parties were able to get over 200 mandates. This wasn’t enough for them to overcome the municipal filter, but in the long term, the opposition’s activity on various councils could lead to gradual decentralization and democratization.

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