The BRICS leaders in 2016.

The BRICS leaders in 2016.

Lectures On policymaking and policy change in Russia

Policy-making is an applied process. We can ask: towards what end or goal are policy-makers striving? At present, as far as domestic and increasingly foreign policy-making in Russia are concerned, an important policy direction can be described with reference to development.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, 73-75
Published on on October 25, 2016

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I would like to provide you with a concise summary of my thoughts on the aspects that make studying policy-making in Russia an important scholarly undertaking.1

I believe this topic is an interesting and relevant one from a number of perspectives. Perhaps the fact that we had such a good attendance at our workshop in Helsinki2 is testimony to the relevance of the subject matter. There are at least four perspectives that make the topic worth analyzing. These are: (1) the Russian studies perspective; (2) the electoral authoritarian regime perspective, (3) comparative public policy, and (4) the comparative development perspective.

There is currently a significant interest in Russian area studies literature in the policy-making process. The scholarly debate involves the distinction between what can be described as the personalist and institutionalist views of Russian policy-making.3

The predominant view emphasizes the personalist nature of policy-making in Russia. This view represents an extension of the long tradition of conceptualizing the Russian political system as patrimonial and despotic. According to this characterization, any important decisions in the country are made by the chief executive and/or a narrow circle of officials and cronies surrounding him. This has certain policy implications for diverse issue areas. In the absence of due attention to any given policy problem by this extremely narrow group, the policy process is doomed to linger in a limbo. In this context, other institutionalized sources of policy-making capacity, such as the government and the parliament, play no independent role and exist primarily to rubber stamp decisions made elsewhere.4 This system of power and policy-making also features the prevalence of weak institutions all the way down to the local level. This institutional weakness essentially limits the top leadership’s ability to implement many of its decisions. While the leader is not constrained by such democratic checks as free and fair elections, an independent legislature and judiciary, or free media, policy-making capacity is nevertheless limited by the self-interested corrupt behavior of the officials who staff state agencies.5

Although the personalist and neo-patrimonial approaches to the Russian policy process are more widespread, the institutionalist perspective has its adherents as well. While we should not underestimate the Russian president’s desire for power maximization or the rent-seeking motives of his close allies,6 a range of institutionalized policy participants — including government ministries and other bureaucratic agencies, the legislature, and some social actors such as business associations — have contributed to policy-making in Russia in different spheres.7 The studies in this tradition show that, in many areas, decisions have involved protracted policy debates which were addressed largely through an institutionalized bureaucratic procedure, with societal actors and the expert community given a chance to contribute to the process.

The debate between these two concepts is by no means resolved and the relationship between the personalist and institutionalized elements of Russian policy-making is a subject that needs to be explored further.8 An important aspect of the discussion is the consideration of the influence of Russian institutional structures (powerful executive and semi-presidentialism) on the policy strategies of individual actors and agencies. Yet an equally important dimension is the analysis of policy implementation.9 Ann-Marie Sätre and Leo Granberg examine this critical stage of the policy process through the prism of grass-roots initiatives carried out by local communities interacting with local administrations and businesses.10

This leads us to the second broad lens with which we can approach the problem of policy-making in Russia and to which the analysis of the Russian case can contribute. This is the question of policy-making in what have been termed hybrid regimes.11 These are the political regimes that combine autocratic and democratic elements, also known as electoral authoritarianisms12 or competitive authoritarianisms.13

Schedler14 notes that electoral authoritarianism has “turned into the most common type of nondemocratic regime in the contemporary world”, with significant prominence in the post-Soviet space, represented in other parts of the globe, and with some notable historical cases, by Brazil and Mexico in the mid-20th century. Two lines of enquiry have been pursued in particular: one related to regime longevity or the prospects for democratization, and the other to the regimes’ internal dynamics associated with the elite and voter choices. In two prominent recent books on the subject, Steven Levitsky and Lucian Way cite structural factors to explain regime survival,15 while a study by Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik attributes it to actor strategies adopted in relation to internal regime dynamics.16

Yet these analyses largely remain focused on the processes surrounding authoritarian elections; in other words they are “election-centric”.17 What is more, relatively little is known about the impact of institutional hybridity on the policy process and policy outcomes. The institutional organization of hybrid regimes, their government structures and the resulting process of policy-making and its outcomes so far have been largely undertheorized.18 Given the significance and persistence of hybrid regimes in the modern world, their policy-making processes and structures deserve greater scholarly interest. Some research has been done in this direction in recent years,19 but there remains considerable scope for future analysis.

With the workshop here at the Aleksanteri Institute, and by exploring the case of policy-making in Russia, we aim to examine some of the effects of hybrid politics on the policy process, and in this way to contribute to filling in the void that exists in the literature.

Another perspective to which the study of Russian policy-making could potentially contribute is comparative public policy. Much public policy theorizing has been developed on the basis of enquiry into the policy process of developed democracies.20 A great deal of scholarly analysis has been applied to examining the differing ways in which their political systems are organized and how their democratic structures and capitalist institutions are balanced.

Under hybrid regimes, by contrast, the two meta institutions of democracy and market function in ways that are determined by their specific institutional arrangements. Nonetheless, the essential building blocks of the policy process, actors, ideas, and institutions, remain present in non-democracies as well; while their policy-making process still has to undergo the basic stages of agenda-setting, policy formulation, decision-making, policy implementation and policy evaluation. Policy-making still involves such elements as leadership, bureaucracy, policy expertise located inside and outside of the government, and rules and practices, i.e. institutions that direct actors’ interactions. Comparative public policy scholarship has developed sophisticated models of the policy process, such as the “punctuated equilibrium” sequence of the policy process proposed by Baumgartner and Jones,21 the “social learning” model originally proposed by Hugh Heclo and developed by Peter Hall,22 and the “policy streams” approach by John Kingdon.23 Some of the questions that emanate from these works and are currently debated by policy scholars relate to the mode of policy change: abrupt and revolutionary vs. slow evolutionary change, and the conditions under which each of the processes is likely to occur.24 Carefully constructed historical accounts of policy development in the Russian context, where dramatic institutional changes have taken place since the mid-1980s, permit a contribution to such debates among comparative public policy scholars and make it possible to refine existing policy models.

Using the case of Russia we can explore questions about the interactions between institutions and actors’ behavior and also the issues of institutional origins. In this regard, the historical institutionalist and statist approach possesses perhaps the most suitable set of analytical devices to account for both institutional stability and transformation. Historical institutionalists view policy ideas as an important basis of institutional genesis and subsequent change. In this tradition, institutional change and survival are explained by the interaction of normative and cognitive aspects of policy ideas,25 the positions of their carriers within the policy community, the interplay between the ideas and actors’ material interest, the impact of formal policy-making structures, and the timing of historical events. Not all political scientists agree, however. Some see the origins of policy choices as lying in the utility-maximizing behavior of individual actors.26

The study of the Russian policy process can help test the usefulness of such differing methodological approaches to policy analysis as the historical institutionalist approach and the rational choice approach.27 The analysis of public policy-making in Russia can also add to the body of comparative knowledge about public policy by examining the relationship between policy ideas and leadership strategies, as well as the patterns of policy change under conditions of subverted democratic practices, i.e. the conditions of regime hybridity. Pertti Ahonen discusses the causes driving the policy process in rapidly changing environments and challenges of studying such processes.28

Finally, the policy process in Russia is worth considering in the light of the “development” thesis.

Policy-making is an applied process. We can ask: towards what end or goal are policy-makers striving? At present, as far as domestic and increasingly foreign policy-making in Russia are concerned, an important policy direction can be described with reference to development. Several recent state-of-the-nation addresses by the Russian president resolutely confirmed this broad policy goal, which appears to encompass such diverse spheres as general economic policy, social policy, housing, energy policy, and the development of specific territories and regions, the Far East being important in this context.29 The development imperative has also underlain such past “mega events” as the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the 2015 Universiade in Ufa, and the forthcoming 2018 World Cup.30

Although development has represented a policy objective since the early 2000s — as testified by the names of Russian ministerial structures or policy initiatives — it has acquired specific importance in the light of the current geo strategic competition that has developed in the relations between Russia and the West and culminated in the Ukraine crisis. As Matthew Sussex and Roger Kanet argue, “development of the national economy has been [one of the] … dimension[s] of the Russian leadership nationalist discourse and policy efforts with an aim to ensure the survival of Russia as a nation.”31

The lack of real sharing of principles and trust with the West has pushed Russia towards finding other partners and alliances in (1) the former Soviet region: for example, the Eurasian Economic Union; (2) in the East generally: this includes various agreements between Russia and China, notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has been described as Russia’s pivot or turn to the East; (3) and globally, with the BRICS grouping that brought Russia together with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa.32 The degree of cultural affinity or shared historical background between these countries, or even the benefits to Russia of the partnership with China specifically, may be debatable. Nonetheless, it has been argued that these countries share a similar pragmatic approach, similar aspirations and strategic priorities in relation to the current world order, and similar domestic policy aspirations.33

The shared developmental aspirations between the BRICS states represent a special interest from the public policy-making perspective. The study of the Russian state’s developmental polices is an emerging area of research.34 As a political scientist, I am not so much concerned with evaluating the results of Russian developmental policies; my interest is to understand the policy process involved and its elements per se. What kind of tools of public policy action does the Russian government use to promote development? How do these policy instruments compare internationally? In this regard, comparing Russia with the BRICS nations appears highly relevant. Barry Gills and Markus Kroger consider the development-oriented policies and institutions of these countries and the challenges that the developmental agenda faces in the future.35

To summarize, the four perspectives outlined above make the study of the policy process in Russia an important and worthwhile subject. Each of these dimensions provide avenues for further research. ≈

Note: This lecture is based on the introduction to a workshop on Policy-Making and Policy Change in Russia, which took place at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, on 28 January 2016.



1                    This lecture followed the introduction by the Aleksanteri Institute’s director, Professor Markku Kivinen. As the organizer of the workshop, I wanted to highlight the purpose of the workshop, the main questions to be addressed, and the outcomes we were hoping to achieve as a result of its discussion.

2                    The workshop took place in Helsinki on 28 January 2016, and was organized by the Aleksanteri Institute. The programme is available at

3                    S. Fortescue, “Russia’s “Turn to the East”: A Study in Policy Making”, Post-Soviet Affairs (2015), DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2015.1051750.

4                    V. Gel’man, “The Vicious Circle of Post-Soviet Neopatrimonialism in Russia”, Post-Soviet Affairs (2015), DOI: 10.1080/1060586X.2015.1071014; V. Gel’man, Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015); B. Taylor, “Police Reform in Russia: The Policy Process In A Hybrid Regime”, Post-Soviet Affairs 30, no. 2—3 (2014): 226—255.

5                    K. Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014); R. W. Orttung and S. Zhemukhov, “The 2014 Sochi Olympic Mega-project and Russia’s Political Economy”, East European Politics 30, no. 2 (2014): 175—191; P. Hanson, “Networks, cronies and Business Plans: Business-State Relations in Russia”, in Russia As A Network State: What Works In Russia When State Institutions Do Not? ed. V. Kononenko and A. Moshes (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 113—138.

6                    Fortescue, “Russia’s Turn to the East”, 22.

7                    Ibid; M. Khmelnitskaya, The Policy-Making Process and Social Learning in Russia: the Case of Housing Policy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); S. Wengle, Post-Soviet Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); T. Gustafson, Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2012); L. J. Cook, Postcommunist Welfare States: Reform Politics in Russia and Eastern Europe (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007), 158; P. Jones Luong and E. Weinthal, “Contra Coercion: Russian Tax Reform, Exogenous Shocks, and Negotiated Institutional Change”, American Political Science Review 98, no. 1 (2004): 139—152.

8                    The work of Vladimir Gel’man, myself, Andrey Starodubtsev, and Ben Noble presented at the workshop explores this. For the arguments presented by the workshop speakers see their recent publications: Gel’man, “The Vicious Circle” and Authoritarian Russia, and “The Rise And Decline Of Electoral Authoritarianism in Russia”, Demokratizatsiya 22, no. 4 (2014): 503—522; Khmelnitskaya (2015), and “Russian Housing Finance Policy: State-Led Institutional Evolution”, Post-Communist Economies 26, no. 2 (2014): 149—175; A. Starodubtsev, “Agency Matters: the Failure of Russian Regional Policy Reforms”, Demokratizatsiya 22, no. 4 (2014): 553 — 574.

9                    A. Monaghan, “Putin’s Russia: Shaping a ‘Grand Strategy’?”, International Affairs, 89, no. 5 (2013): 1221—1236 and Defibrillating the Vertikal? Putin and Russian Grand Strategy, Chatham House, Research Paper, October 2014,

10                  For publications by these authors see: L. Granberg and A.-M. Sätre, “Agency and Development in Russia: Using Opportunities in A Local Context”, Baltic Worlds 8, no. 3—4 (2015): 67—75, and The Other Russia: Local Experience and Societal Change (London and New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, 2016; forthcoming).

11                  L. J. Diamond, “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes”, Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2, (2002): 21—35.

12                  A. Schedler, “Electoral Authoritarianism”, in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences , ed. R. Scott and S. Kosslyn (John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 1—16; Y. L. Morse, “The Era of electoral Authoritarianism”, World Politics 64, no. 1 (2012): 161—198.

13                  S. Levitsky and L. A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

14                  Schedler, “Electoral Authoritarianism”, 1.

15                  Levitsky and Way, Competitive Authoritarianism.

16                  V.J. Bunce and S. L Wolchik, Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

17                  Schedler, “Electoral Authoritarianism”, 6.

18                  B. Taylor, “Police Reform in Russia.

19                  N. Petrov, M. Lipman, and H. Hale, “Three Dilemmas of Hybrid Regime Governance: Russia from Putin to Putin”, Post-Soviet Affairs 30, no. 1 (2014): 1—26; Taylor, “Police Reform in Russia”.

20                  B. G. Peters, “Is Governance for Everybody?”, Policy and Society 33 (2014): 301—306.

21                  F. R. Baumgartner and B. D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

22                  Developed by P. A. Hall, “Policy paradigms, Social Learning, and The State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain”, Comparative Politics 25, no. 3 (1993): 275—296.

23                  J. W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (New York: Longman, 2003).

24                  J. Mahoney and K. Thelen (eds.), Explaining Institutional Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

25                  J. L. Campbell, “Institutional Analysis and The Role Of Ideas in Political Economy”, Theory and Society 27, no. 3 (1998): 377—409.

26                  See P. A. Hall and R. C. R. Taylor, “Political Science and the Three ‘New Institutionalisms’”, Political Studies 44, December (1996): 936—957.

27                  For the application of the latter approach to the analysis of Russian politics, see Gel’man, Authoritarian Russia.

28                  The presentation delivered at the workshop by Professor Ahonen is available from the author of the article.

29                  See for instance: J. Cooper, Reviewing Russian Strategic Planning: the Emergence of Strategy 2020, research review (Rome: NATO Defense College, 2012); S. Oxenstierna and V. P. Tynkkynen, “Introduction”, in Russian Energy and Security up to 2030 , ed. S. Oxenstierna and V. P. Tynkkynen (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 1—15; Wengle, Post-Soviet Power; Fortescue, “Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’”.

30                  Orttung and Zhemukhov, “The 2014 Sochi Olympic Mega-Project”.

31                  M. Sussex and R. E. Kanet, “Conclusion”, in Power, Politics and Confrontation in Eurasia ed. M. Sussex and R. E. Kanet (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 246.

32                  See R. Sakwa, “Russian Neo-revisionism and Dilemmas of Eurasian Integration”, in Power, Politics and Confrontation in Eurasia, ed. M. Sussex and R. E. Kanet (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 113.

33                  P. Shearman, “Putin and Russian Policy towards the West”, in Power, Politics and Confrontation in Eurasia, ed. M. Sussex and R. E. Kanet (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 82.

34                  R. Connolly, “State industrial Policy in Russia: The Nanotechnology Industry”, Post-Soviet Affairs 29, no. 1 (2013): 1—30; Fortescue, “Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’”; A. Lowry, “Russia’s Post-neoliberal Development Strategy and High-Technology Considerations”, in Authoritarian Modernization in Russia: Ideas, Institutions and Policies, ed. V. Gel’man (Farnham: Ashgate 2016), 128—147.

35                  See for instance M. Kroger, “Neo-mercantilist Capitalism and Post-2008 Cleavages in Economic Decision-making Power in Brazil”, Third World Quarterly 33, no. 5 (2012): 887—901; K. Gray and B. K. Gills “South-South Cooperation and the Rise of the Global South”, Third World Quarterly 37, no. 4 (2016): 557—574.

  • by Marina Khmelnitskaya

    Post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Russian Studies “Choices of Russian Modernisation”. Her research interests include Russian politics and policy-making, experts, policy ideas, historical institutionalism, and housing policy.

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