The title of the present volume slightly misled this reviewer at first, as it seemed to promise something broader in scope and more general than it does. This misunderstanding was, however, clarified in the preface (chapter 1), in which S. Kropp states two main goals, which the book largely fulfils: first, to contribute to governance network theory with a reflection on its applicability in hybrid or authoritarian regimes, and second, to provide ‘thick descriptions’ (p 5) of some selected and very specialised policy areas in some of Russia's regions: HIV prevention in Saint Petersburg and Samara, Environmental Impact Assessments in Krasnodar and Irkutsk, climate change adaptation in Saint Petersburg and Arkhangelsk, child welfare in various undifferentiated regions, ethnic conflict management in Krasnodar and Stavropol, and indigenous (Sami) self-representation in Murmansk. These two goals are reflected in the circular design of the collective work: a theoretical introduction (chapter 2), empirical case studies (chapters 3 to 8) and a conclusion feeding back empirical findings into theory (chapter 9).
Throughout the theoretical parts of the book (preface, chapters 2 and 9), the authors claim a non-normative stance vis-a-vis Russia, and assume that the ‘pattern of the mix’ (Davies, 2011) of vertical and horizontal governance methods applied in this country is not qualitatively different from that in western democratic societies. This is a refreshing approach, contrasting with the many western studies of the Russian regime whose systematically accusatory tone, rooted in the neo-liberal or social–democratic ideologies of the European Union and the US, often limits the usefulness of the argument. However, this same claim of non-normativity somewhat backlashes, as could be expected, against the authors as they obviously have not found the long-sought secret to ‘objectivity’ in social science and introduce some normativity in the focus and frame. Namely, both the case studies and the theoretical chapters focus on meta-governance tools, that is, ‘which tools the state authorities utilise in order to govern networks’ (p 4), and are largely framed to highlight the place and role of NGOs rather than the whole range of network participants. This frame and focus, even if the authors justify them at length, end up producing a mixed impression about the effective impact of the book, which I cannot help but feel is partly to assess by means of a narrow lens Russia's level of democracy (a vain endeavour in my opinion!), in spite of claims to the contrary. This tension is manifested throughout the book in the frequent citations of authors such as Davies who have pointed out the fallacies and ‘democratic problem’ of governance theory, citations that come across as a sort of excuse or alibi for using this theory regardless.
I feel compelled to note that the remark above is guided by my deep dislike for governance theory, which however does not affect my appreciation of the book's other merits. The second chapter, which lays out the theoretical framework for the rest of the book, will satisfy scholars interested in governance/governance network theory in that it thoroughly situates the study in the existing literature and clearly announces its purported contribution, all the while demonstrating a fine and documented understanding of the Russian political context. One may feel overwhelmed by the profusion of analytical tools and typologies presented in this chapter, but this reflects the variety and complexity of the following case studies.
The case studies themselves I found rather uneven, both in content and form. The chapters about Environmental Impact Assessments (4, Schumann and Kropp) and Sami politics (8, Berg-Nordlie) are structured, theoretically sound, instructive and stimulating. Both I would expect to be able to quote in my work about local politics in Russia. Other chapters (3, HIV prevention; 6, child welfare) are rather unstructured and inconclusive, as well as less clearly rooted in the theoretical framework of chapter 2. One may discuss the relevance of chapter 5, on climate change adaptation, in which the authors undertake to describe the absence of governance networks on a policy issue that has not been framed as such in the regions under focus. Finally, although the chapter about ethnic conflict management (7) has merits, it is rooted in the very specific context of the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions and should not be taken as reflective of the richness and diversity of ethnic politics in Russia as a whole. Specialists of and in Russia will surely notice that the case selection is biased in favour of regions located west of the Urals, and that Siberia and the Far East are not sufficiently represented, nor is the potential relevance of distinguishing such or other macro-regions discussed.
I was not convinced by the authors’ attempt to ‘systematise the empirical observations’ in the concluding chapter (9), in which they seem to struggle to combine their dense but circumscribed empirical fragments into heavily qualified general conclusions. I remained frustrated with the profusion of notions whose place in the authors’ explanatory framework is unclear. For example, the issues of informality and attending vested interests come up several times in the book, but are not ‘fed back’ systematically in the concluding chapter. The same goes for potential determining variables for the formation and functioning of Russian networks, such as time, trust (chapter 4 and 7), and scale (chapter 3, p 65), which remain exogenous to the authors’ model(s) although they clearly appeared to me as crucial when reading the case studies. The ‘idiosyncratic features of the participating actors’ (p 77) are also mentioned several times, which seems to undermine the whole explanatory endeavour explicitly based on strict typologies. Altogether, the book is more successful as a descriptive than an explanatory study.
Governance in Russian regions will be difficult to read for anyone who is not deeply familiar with and interested in the very specific issues at hand. It comes across as the condensed result of an enormous and thorough field work based on complex theoretical foundations. Given this substantial complexity, one may regret that the text was not proofread more thoroughly by a native English speaker. The authors laudably admit to the numerous caveats, limited scope and inconclusive findings; their methodical rigorousness is remarkable but highlights the difficulty to extract any general and ‘easy’ takeaways from this labour-intensive and ambitious yet fragmentary micro-analysis. This poses the question of the larger applicability of the study. The book presents itself as an original contribution to a very narrow field of research – that of network meta-governance in hybrid or authoritarian regimes – but leaves an enormous number of regions, aspects and policy areas unaddressed. It is commendable for its idiosyncratic takeaways about the perception of certain policy issues and the collaboration culture between state and non-state actors in certain parts of Russia, but the prospective reader should be warned that this is not an easy read.