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  • Era of the Pandemic in Researches of HSE University-St Petersburg: Yury Kabanov's New Article on Anti-COVID Policy in Russian Regions

Era of the Pandemic in Researches of HSE University-St Petersburg: Yury Kabanov's New Article on Anti-COVID Policy in Russian Regions

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many areas of public life. Now the researchers have many new questions which require extensive consideration. Yury Kabanov, Academic Supervisor of the Bachelor's programme 'Political Science and World Politics', and his colleagues conducted a research on public administration in Russia during the pandemic and public opinion of people in the regions.

Era of the Pandemic in Researches of HSE University-St Petersburg: Yury Kabanov's New Article on Anti-COVID Policy in Russian Regions

Photo courtesy of Yury Kabanov

– What anti-COVID measures were implemented in Russia?

– During the pandemic, each country developed a set of measures which they undertook. The states actively learnt from each other, adopted experience, and kept track of the situation in the neighbouring countries. That is why the measures are similar in many ways: restrictions on the movement of people, closures of borders and certain institutions, self-isolation, a mask mandate, economic and social support, testing and vaccination. The difference was in the severity and duration. Some countries closed all the shops except grocery stores, in other countries, all the shops were open. In some states, the cafes were open, but the schools were closed and vice versa.

In Russia, anti-COVID policy was similar to the one implemented in the majority of countries, with some nuances, for example, glove mandate or long holiday. There were not any unique measures in Russia, I believe. The only significant difference is active development of the vaccine.

In our country, the centralised policy was combined with some regional variations. On one hand, there were common federal approaches to self-isolation, support of citizens and business. The role of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) was strengthened. On the other hand, some parts of the authority were handed over to the regional level to let the subjects make the anti-COVID measures more specific according to the current situation–both epidemiological and economic.

– Was it a common strategy to hand the authority over to the regional level for other countries to fight the pandemic?

– The idea of decentralisation is not unique during the pandemic. Many federal and decentralised states used this strategy, for example, the USA, Italy, Switzerland, Germany. But each case was different in the political context, which influenced the policy implementation and effectiveness. Besides, we cannot say that the states pursued a unified approach during the pandemic: the relations between the centre and regions were changing towards either centralisation or federalisation.

In the scientific community, there is a discussion about the influence of centralisation on the successful fight against the pandemic. In one respect, centralised decision-making seems to speed up the processes, but in the other, the more centres of decision-making there are, the more attention should be paid to the local conditions.

Decentralisation is about the authority as well as the responsibility for the unpopular decisions, first of all. In different states, there was a political game between the levels of authorities: in sequence they wanted either to get dividends for the successful policy or to protect themselves from the negative reaction of the society to the failures.

– One of the article theses says: 'Granting of additional power to the governors resulted in increased attention to them on social media'. Does it imply that before the pandemic, the governors were not so popular on social media?

– Partly, yes. It seems wrong to make a generalisation: there are 85 regions with their own heads in Russia, and they are all rather different. Some of them are active social media users, while others had not had personal accounts at all. Some regional heads are public politicians, but others are more like technocrat managers. However, during the pandemic, the governors became the focus of attention for sure because they were assigned additional responsibility.

– Where did you get the idea of choosing such a research design?

– One of the reasons is that at the beginning of the pandemic, many political scientists became a bit of epidemiologists—everyone started doing researches on COVID-19. My colleagues and I are no exception. We were interested in looking at the COVID-19 policy in terms of public and multilevel administration. At the Centre for Comparative Governance Studies, there was a whole team of researchers and volunteers.

At the same time, in the literature, there appeared a discussion related to decentralisation and its influence on the policy effectiveness in the context of COVID-19. Some researchers said that it was a step towards federalism, but others believed it was an attempt to shift the political responsibility for the decisions and their consequences to the regional heads. We wanted to test these hypotheses empirically.

Another reason is the interest in studying social media. We wanted to understand to which extent social media become an indicator of the public opinion.

In our research, we combined these two topics: administration and social media.

– What conclusions did you manage to arrive at?

– The first hypothesis was about the influence of decentralisation on the governors and their reputation. We presumed that after the authority was handed over to the regional level, the citizens' attention shifted to the governors: people in the regions started to discuss them and their decisions more actively. In the end, this hypothesis was confirmed. As a matter of fact, at some point, the citizens' opinion became an indicator of the measures implemented in the region. 

In most cases, the opinion corresponded to the epidemiological situation. We noticed that the more severe the measures were, the more negative comments were published about the regional heads. It may be connected with temporal dynamics as well. The data shows that firstly, the negative perception of the governors prevailed–it was during the most difficult period of the pandemic, including strict self-isolation and closure of many public places. With easing of the restrictions, the situation levelled off. 

In my opinion, we have proved that decentralisation entailed the transition of political responsibility for making unpopular decisions to the regional heads. 

Our other hypotheses were related to the quality of the administration in the region and its 'information policy'. We expected that the more effective the administration in the region is, the less negatively the citizens would behave on social media. Besides, the more active the regional heads are on the Internet, the higher the chance is to smooth the discontent of the locals and explain to them the meaning of certain measure. The first hypothesis was confirmed: in fact, the governors of the regions with effective administration were less affected in terms of the reputation. But we could not find enough empirical evidence for the second one. It might be due to the fact that the number of the governors who actively joined the informational space was not that significant. 

– Why were Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and some other regions excluded from the sample? 

– It is connected to the limitation of quantitative methods. In this research, we used regression analysis. When you work with the statistical data, it is important to take into account both content and technical aspects. For example, Moscow and Saint-Petersburg prominently stood out from the rest regions within the sample, first of all, by the incidence rate. There the number of the infected is incomparable with other regions. In addition, the amount of messages on social media was several times greater than in other subjects. 

Some other regions were excluded as well: either the regional agenda was not confined to COVID-19 discussions or the regional heads were much more active on social media than the average. 

We did not include these cases in our study, but it gives grounds for new researches—for instance, a case-study of these regions. 

— One of the independent variables of your research is the indicator of measures severity. How was the assessment of severity carried out? 

— There are several indicators in the world, the most important of which is prepared by Oxford University. It is called COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. The developed methodology helps to assess the measures severity on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the highest level of severity. How is the assessment carried out? For example, the government may close everything except the convenience stores and pharmacies or they may allow the restaurants and cafes to continue their work–for each of such measures they assign scores which are later summed up. This indicator tracks the cross-national dynamics all around the world every day.

Unfortunately, there has not been developed anything similar to track only Russian regions. My colleagues and I wanted to develop such an indicator ourselves, but it turned out to be rather hard and resource-consuming. So we had to work with what we had.

To use the indicator of measures severity, we had to introduce several proxy-variables. The first one was based on the data of COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. It helped us to assess the average measures severity in Russia for a particular month. Our line of thinking was that the overall level of severity would influence the attitude towards the governors, though the extent may differ.

For the second proxy-variable, we implemented the index of self-isolation by Yandex. In this case, we supposed that all the restrictive measures of regional governments would entail the increase in the level of self-isolation. So the level of self-isolation additionally helped to assess the severity of the measures existing in the region on a particular day.

Both of these metrics are not perfect, so the conclusions should and must be checked further based on other data.

– How can this research be developed in the future? 

– First of all, we should engage in collecting and analysing data. Nowadays, there is a great demand for the extensive data related to COVID-19. Our research illustrated the lack of it. 

The other option is to study individual cases. We can analyse how the regions, which were caught up in the harsh conditions of the pandemic, managed the necessity to build 'their own' policy and relations with the citizens. Such researches are not numerous. 

Besides, it is rather interesting to explore the role of social media in regional administration. The context is changing, so this topic must be constantly studied.

To read the article, click the following link (available only in Russian).