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Russia’s Constitutional Ailments

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Yeltsin's 1993 Constitution, which is still valid today, has never been a particularly balanced basic law. The Russian political system is called ‘semi-presidential.' It has even been claimed that it follows the French model. In fact, the emergence of the Russian presidency in 1991 did not have much to do with international experiences, any more than did its strengthening through the constitution of 1993 and later on. These developments were rather a mutation of the Soviet model of governance. They were determined by the narrow interests of the major actors involved, at the respective points in time.

The Soviet model

Within the power structure that Stalin left to his successors, the General or First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee was the central role in the governance of Russia's Soviet empire. We in the West would regard the Soviet state's prime-minister as equivalent to the status of a deputy minister with an especially wide range of responsibilities embracing economic, cultural and social affairs.

Not only had the Chairman of the Council of Ministers little influence on such issues as foreign, military or security policies. All major decision-making power was eventually located in the hands of the CPSU's Central Committee's Politburo - the de facto government of the USSR. The Council of Ministers was not a government proper, but merely the highest echelon of the state bureaucracy directed by the CPSU apparatus.

Having dismantled much of the legitimacy of one-party rule in the late 1980s, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev needed to diversify his power base. In 1989, Gorbachev introduced the office of the President of the Soviet Union to which he was duly elected by the Congress of People's Deputies.

Yeltsin's move to create the office of the RSFSR President with a popular mandate two years later, was less a replication of France's power structure, than a copy of the executive on the level of the Union. It was thus a somewhat transfigured replication of Soviet ruling patterns, but based on a popular vote rather than totalitarian control and political terror. While the gradual collapse of the Union-state in 1991 completed the shift of power from the party to the state, many of the underlying concepts and the dominant habitus, or system, of Soviet governance survived.

Russia's post-Soviet autocracy

In much of the post-Soviet area, including the Russian Federation, the prime-minister remained a tertiary figure in the power-structure and, sometimes, a scapegoat when things went wrong.

Under both Yeltsin and Putin, certain deputy Prime Ministers as well as other officials particularly close to the President, like the Head of the Presidential Administration or Secretary of the  Security Council, came second to the President and overshadowed the Chairman of the Council of Ministers in terms of their influence and authority.

In both Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, the use of such words as ‘minister' or ‘head of government' was, in fact, a game with words that reminded of the misuse of such terms as ‘democracy,' union' or ‘federation' in  Russia after 1917. With brief intermissions (1917-1920, 1924-1928, 1953-1954, 1989-1993,1998-2000), the political concept that best described Russia's post-revolutionary polity was the same as before the October Revolution - autocracy: self-rule by one man.

The duumvirate's unclarities

In a way, this changed this year when Putin stepped down as President, and created a duumvirate. Leaving the Kremlin and becoming Russia's new prime-minister, Putin took, informally, much of the authority and many prerogatives of the President with him to Moscow's White House, the seat of Russia's formal government. Such a power-shift has been useful in so far as it has transformed Russia's Council of Ministers into a proper ruling body. For the first time since Lenin's chairmanship of the Council of People's Commissars, most power is concentrated within Russia's official government.

However, Putin's move also entails risks. The new prime-minister overdid his establishment of real semi-presidentialism in Russia in that he now overshadows his formal superior, President Dmitry Medvedev. This not only creates non-clarity about who is responsible for what in Russia. It has also devalued the office of the President - a dangerous development that continues Putin's earlier blurring of the distribution of power and accountability in Russia.

Putin inherited from Yeltsin a set of institutions already involved in an unhealthy competition for the formulation of policies. The Council of  Ministers, Presidential Administration, and Security Council had conflicting responsibilities. After Putin took over in 2000, he not only reduced the influence of Russian civil society, political parties and regional power. He also added to the already cumbersome central power system new offices and bodies like the Presidential Plenipotentiaries in Russia's new Federal Districts, the State Council, and the Public Chamber. All these bodies now contend with the Governors, State Duma and Federation Council in exerting political influence on the federal level.

Such a diversity of institutions has, obviously, been designed to reduce or dilute all non-presidential power. The many formal office holders of the listed institutions neutralise one another, while all relevant decisions are made by the President and his buddies.

The personalisation of political rule

Under Putin's incumbency as President, political competition was still taking place in Russia. Yet, was happening within a narrow circle of power-hungry presidential cronies - often, with a security service background - whose influence was determined less by their official functions, than by their relative closeness to Putin.

After the introduction of the duumvirate this year, this configuration transformed somewhat. The Presidential Office too has fallen victim to Putin's grab of power. Whereas until 2008, Russian politics was centred on the Kremlin as the seat of the President, his aides and his administration, no such clear centre of power exists today.

Instead, Putin himself - as a private person rather than as an office holder - is the remaining locus of power. Today, Russia has a strikingly personalistic form of political rule that is unusual, if not anachronistic for a highly developed country, in the 21st century.

Recent changes to constitution

It could be that Medvedev's  recent proposals to change the Russian  power structure are meant to solve this problem. The office of the President will be strengthened through an extension of the term from currently four to six years - a measure that may re-establish this institution as the main locus of power.

At the same time, the Russian political process will become less focused on the presidential office alone. For the term of the State Duma will be extended too, but only for one year, i.e. from four to five years. Thus parliamentary elections will in due course cease to be primarily run-ups for the presidential elections, as has been the case since 1995.

President Medvedev also announced, in his first presidential address of November 5th, that he wants to extend the State Duma's control functions. He made a number of further specific proposals and announcement. While these minor adaptations seem designed to increase society's influence on government. But taken  together, they lack a clear direction, leaving both Russian and Western observers guessing where the new President wants to go.

Uncertain elite

Medvedev's presidential address should not be taken to constitute a proper and coherent political programme. Rather, it can be seen as an expression of the elite's uncertainty about Russia's political future, and might be understood as a reflection of power struggles behind the scenes.

At least that would explain various contradictions in Medvedev's outline of future domestic and foreign policies. For example, his attack on the Russian statist tradition sits oddly with his proposal to expand the presidential term. Likewise, the rabidly anti-American rhetoric at the beginning of his speech is out of kilter with his denial that there is anti-Americanism in Russia at the end.

This explanation would also account for the awkwardness of some of Medvedev's proposals, such as his idea that parties that receive between 5% and 7% of the vote in a State Duma election should get one or two seats in parliament.

This strange formula looks as if it was the result of a uneasy compromise between those wishing to increase societal control (including, probably, Medvedev himself), and those wishing to preserve the insulation of power from the people.

Return of Kremlinology

Above all, it is unclear who will benefit from the extension of the presidential term: Medvedev himself or Putin? The latter illustrates what is, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of Medvedev's recent reform plan - the way it has been announced and is now being, at least partly, implemented. There has been some media discussion of Medvedev's various proposals after they had been made. But the design, evaluation, specification and execution of the numerous changes to Russia's political power structure remain, as under Brezhnev and Putin, secluded domains with no public participation.

Pundits in both Russia and the West are returning to the uncertain discipline of Kremlinology in order to make sense of where Medvedev wants to go. This feeling of déjà-vu is, perhaps, the most disturbing experience one is left with when trying to make sense where the world's largest country is heading in the new century.

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