In his last press meet before he stepped down from office, Vladimir Putin had severely criticized the US and Europe for trying to influence Russia’s future moves. He said Russia would continue to develop its own ‘state centered brand of democracy’ uninfluenced by any external prompts. In the context of what this statement means to the future of democratic Russia in the present, it would be helpful to probe progress in Russia so far. The fall of Communism in the 1990’s has increased interest in different types of constitutional arrangements to govern the newly liberated states.
The vast numbers of stable regimes of the world have been turning to democracy. They have reformed into parliamentary set ups, where executive power is controlled by legislatures and must command a majority to survive. The only full fledged presidential democracy is really the United States and the rest are merely convenient arrangements to help oversee governance. Russia has however, has completely reversed and gone the way of an emerging dictatorship. This is even when smaller neighbors such as Ukraine, Georgia and Siberia have managed to fend off autocracy.
Under the Russian system, the president has overreaching powers which even extend to legislative appointments to regional posts and in federal government. Since year 2000, Russia has been reduced from an often disorderly democracy of sorts to a ‘non democracy’, in the last 6 years. In 2005 a study on the quality of freedom across regimes coming out from the shadow of repression, rated Russia as ‘not free’ downgrading it from the previous ‘partly free’ status. This puts Russia in league with Central Asian states like Belarus – most would not have thought such a thing possible when the Soviet Union collapsed in 2000.
On all major counts of a functioning democracy: the rule of law, civil liberties, corruption – the nation drew a miserable score. (Lamb, 2004) This proves that Russia has become even less democratic since the last few years in spite of elections regularly being held since 1993. Though any conscious breach of the Russian Constitution has been scrupulously avoided, the democratic hallmarks of Russian politics are being seriously undermined. For instance, since Boris Yeltsin’s regime, the system of fair elections to federal and regional posts in government has been manipulated.
In fact, elections for regional posts have been completely bypassed, degrading the quality of Russian democracy. Since 2000, the Russian media has been severely curtailed and manipulated while any vestiges of a strong opposition have been removed due to resounding majorities achieved by the favored party in the Duma. Convenient ‘reforms’ to the Upper House of Parliament, the Federation Council have been put into place. Permanent members of the Council are appointed rather than elected to the position. This has caused considerable damage to any aspiration to democracy.
Any attempt at fair and just government was stymied when Putin pushed through reforms to reorganize the Council so that regional leaders would not be entitled to seats in it. The powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB – formerly known as the KGB) were expanded to enable misuse of the judicial system to get even with political opponents. The sole ‘instrument of change’ was the Russian president who vested all powers of decision in himself – as had never been done before in Russia’s past. The individual matters less and less in the omnipresence of presidential power and authority, and individual citizens in Russia are less secure.
As the quality of counterchecks and balances against executive powers have deteriorated, it was inevitable that corruption would seep in. Russia ranked 126 in corruption rankings – ushering it into the top twenty percent league of ‘the most corrupt nations in the world’. Structural economic imbalances and inadequate institutional choices in countering executive power at the turn of the 90 have veered Russia off the path of democracy. As studies have indicated, there are inherent dangers posed by presidential rule in newly emergent democracies.
Without doubt, the imbalance of power between the President and the Parliament of Russia is one such example of a wrong institutional choice. As a coalition of well over 80 states, Russia could ill afford to hand over control to one individual. Without violating the main precepts of the Constitution , the President has insidiously taken over all functioning granted to him, in fact, by the Constitution of 1993. What this means, is that, counter to the pursuit of democracy and freedom for which Soviet Russia made way, Russia faces an emerging dictatorship.
The Russian Constitution provides for a duality in power structures whereby the government requires the confidence of parliament to retain power, but not the President. The 1993 constitution, written at a particularly troubled juncture in Russia’s history, authorized the President to issue decrees having the force of law. The decrees may not violate existing laws. (Lamb, 2004) Further, the President‘s choice of Prime Minister is approved by parliament , but should it not do so three times consecutively, he can dissolve the House and ask for fresh elections.
The astounding thing is that in the new disposition of Russia, the President virtually reigns unopposed and so has no need to ever take recourse to these awkward legislative measures. A strong force opposing such unlimited power would naturally be a strong party system which will need to be in place for various reasons. This is almost totally absent at local and national levels in the country. A strong party system will help to shore up democracy and also be a factor in building and maintaining a cohesive state.
It can act as the people’s representative to government as well as connect various political groups nationally and provincially. A ‘web of reciprocity’ can help maintain communication between local and national officials. The party structure prevents ‘crony’ interests from being furthered and makes government accountable always. However, in recent times the office of the President has preferred to function in a manner which is not transparent and has been emboldened because it avoids association with any party. Instead, the incumbent prefers to work through a network of friends and family members.
As a result, the required political constituency – people – is not served, through a conduit which is the political party. This feeds nostalgia for the old regime and the stability it made possible. There are no clear divisions under the Russian president’s regime as he prefers to keep a grip over both constitutional and security elements. This is not conducive to a bright democratic future as, at any time, he can assume all powers for himself, claiming insurgency or some such national ‘danger’. Observe the Chechnya operation and you can see how supposed ‘dangers’ can bring Russia to the brink of conflict.
The growing economy has also helped Russia make the way to autocracy. The country has been growing at a 4 – 6 % rate since 1999. However, this growth has very largely been on the back of high prices of oil across the world. Even if Russia were to grow at this rate for another two decades, it would only manage to attain the GDP level of Portugal- hardly worth emulating. A makeover of Russian industry aimed at systematic overhaul, might bring Russian industry competitive at global price levels. The presidency needs to shift away from cronyism.
In conclusion, it is clear that under the old Soviet regimes, institutionalization did serve a limited purpose. But in the end, a rigid non flexible government does not create a stable democracy. A truly competitive federal democracy is the likely way forward to a progressive democracy. This would be better than compromising or having to make do with the current version of ’low quality democracy’ on offer. At the heart of such a system is an institutionalized political party working within a system of fair elections.
Such a system would better achieve the President’s goals of creating a prosperous, governable and secure Russian state. (Linz, 1992) The President should be proactive in assuring a system of elected government officers throughout the districts m making way for competent administration. A weak authority will not serve interests of Russian people any more than autocratic rule. The lack of growing authority may be the downfall of current regimes. Russia needs to shore up its systems and the way is clear.