Staunton, October 14 – Ever more American sociologists and social commentators say that the best predictor of an individual’s life chances is the zip code in which he or she is born and lives because poverty and opportunity are so tightly linked to specific places be they impoverished inner cities and rural areas or well-off suburbs.
In a comment for the Tallinn-based Region.Expert, Russian opposition political Grigory Yavlinsky says that Russia has something very similar: “It is well-known,” he writes, “that the well-being and career of an individual in Russia depends on which region he is born and grows up in” (region.expert/inequality/).
Much of this inequality reflects the fact that the central government takes far more for its own purposes from the regions than it gives back and that as a result, despite all promises to the contrary, Moscow does not make a significant effort to equalize the situation. Rather, its policies concentrate wealth and advantages in a few at the expense of the many, he says.
Pskov doesn’t have enough money for firewood because it sends so much money to Moscow that the Kremlin spends its money on rockets. A third of people in Saratov don’t have indoor plumbing but the people there help finance the war in the Donbass. And Chelyabinsk lacks money to save it from environmental disaster but gives enough to pay for the war in Syria.
These imbalances have been increased by the coronavirus pandemic and declining oil prices, Yavlinsky says, with the former forcing the regions to borrow money from the center for what are unfunded liabilities and the latter meaning that taxes on income that had gone in part to the regions are now lower.
For most social needs, decisions about what to do, if resources are available, should be made by municipal councils who are closest to the people, he continues. “But in Russia everything is just the reverse.” Moscow makes the decisions directly and indirectly, and the municipal councils can do little.
Many are having to cut back on the things they had been supporting like schools and hospitals as their incomes have fallen or in an attempt to maintain standards of living go deeper into debt to banks or the federal government and thus assuming an ever larger burden for the future.
Moscow does spend some money to equalize the situation of various regions but far from enough because the total amount it devotes to that is too small given its spending on various military and foreign policy initiatives and because it distributes money to the regions not only to equalize the situation but also to show favor to some rather than others, Yavlinsky continues.
In order to eliminate the zip code problem, many more resources must be retained by the regions and Moscow must do far more to transfer funds to municipalities to ensure that all Russians have a more equal set of life chances. That will require real democracy with regular rotation of those in power, real federalism, an independent judiciary, and so on.
At present, the central government is opposed to those necessary preconditions for regional equalization and consequently won’t take sufficient economic steps to compensate for their lac, Yavlinsky says.
Window on Eurasia — New Series