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Nordic Russian and Eastern European Studies Conference
Intentions, Interactions and Paradoxes in Post-Socialist Space
24-25 May 2013 in Helsinki, Finland

Abstracts

Public Consultative Bodies in the Russian Regions: Conceptualizing Empirical Evidence
Chair and discussant: Meri Kulmala (Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland)
Aleksandr Sungurov (National Research University Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia): Public Chambers in Russian Regions: Comparative Analysis
Kirsti Stuvøy (Lillehammer University College, Norway): Power and Legitimacy in Murmansk Regional Public Chamber
Anna Tarasenko (National Research University Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg, Russia): Interest Representation in Consultative Bodies: Cases of Russian Regions
Catherine Owen (University of Exeter, UK):Public Scrutiny and Governance Trends in Samara: Between Autocracy and Neoliberalism

Since 2004, Russia has been experiencing an explosion in new institutions of governance. Across the country, public consultative bodies, which bring together leading figures from the media, academia and ‘civil society’ with governmental officials with the aim of scrutinizing draft policy, have been set up both at national and regional levels. This development has triggered heated debate among experts and academics about the nature, purpose and performance of these institutions, broadly termed in Russian obshchestvennye konsul’tativnye struktury, and encompassing such diverse bodies as the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation to local ‘Public Councils’ (obshchestvennye sovety) attached to specific local government agencies. Scholars are still struggling to find an appropriate theoretical approach to explain this phenomenon.  Do they further the development of democracy by creating new spaces for participation in decision-making processes or do they hinder it by removing accountability for policy decisions from legitimate government agencies? Why are some structures considered ‘effective’ while others are written off as ‘Potemkin villages’? The academic literature still lacks a diversity of theoretically innovating and empirically grounded attempts to answer such questions. Therefore this panel aims to rectify this lacuna by presenting a rich empirical analysis of public consultative bodies in several Russian regions and suggesting a variety of possible theoretical frameworks which may help to explain their role in the country’s contemporary state-society relations.
In his paper, Alexander Sungurov compares patterns of activities of Public Chambers in Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Saratov, as well as other cities, and argues that in some cases these Chambers may play the role of ‘reserve regional assemblies’. The decline in effective mediating institutions (not only public consultative bodies but also human rights ombudsmen and think tanks) in the Saratov region is indicative of the overall shift towards authoritarian governance in Russia. Next, drawing on evidence from north-westerly regions, Anna Tarasenko argues that advisory entities are frameworks for interest representation which vary in the level of activity, agenda-setting ability and the range of interests represented. Analysis shows that institutional settings, which determine procedures of their creation and performance, account for the decisions/activity they produce. Studying such a setting in Murmansk, Kirsti Stuvøy has found that there is room to manoeuvre for civil society groups, which is simultaneously characterized by co-optation and flexibility. She asks how stories of individual achievements and successes for regional development that are fulfilled through involvement in the public chamber stand up against democratic criteria of control, participation and accountability. Finally, Catherine Owen examines how far public consultative bodies can be seen as a Russian articulation of global trends in neoliberal governance, in which society is given an increasing role in its own steering. Drawing on the experiences of NGO leaders in several public councils in Samara, she argues that such bodies are part of a hybridization of governance practices which combines the recognition of non-state organisations as potential partners in the policy process with historic autocratic tendencies.