Vladimir Putin’s victory on March 26th, 2000, in the presidential election was a victory for democracy in Russia. Russia adopted a presidential-parliamentary system of its own in 1993, with intent to ease the transition from communism to democracy. Putin, similarly to Boris Yeltsin before him, wants to be free to make fundamental political and economic reforms to make a more democratic Russia possible. 1 This paper will argue that although president Putin’s powers may be necessary for the democratic reforms in Russia, the Russian president does in fact posses too much power.
Furthermore, Putin’s effort to reassert the authority of the central government, over the entire country threatens the development of a greater degree of democracy in Russia. Finally, this paper will analyze the concepts of parliamentary and presidential democracies in discussing the current political situation in Russia. The political scene in Russia was highly volatile and fragmented in the early 1990’s but has begun to settle. For the past decade Russia has been more or less a democracy, with a market economy and on civilized terms with its neighbours. This in fact is only the beginning for Russia if in fact they truly want to become a more democratic.
As it is now the Russian president has an enormous amount of power over the country, far more than other presidential democracies. In Russia, the president has even greater constitutional powers than the president of the United States, while the legislature has fewer powers than the U. S. Congress. 3 At an attempt to strengthen Russia, among other benefits, Putin is looking to overhaul the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, giving himself more control over regional governments.
This move would drastically increase Putin’s power, threatening the new democracy in Russia. His plan has some benefits however it does not appear to support his promise of democracy, leaving Russian citizens wondering whether it is a move towards democracy or dictatorship. This paper will explore the powers of the Russian president by comparing it with other forms of presidential governments and examine the presidential-parliamentary government in Russia. The first section will compare the powers of Vladimir Putin to those of the United States president.
It will also examine the parliamentary part of the Russian political system and look at the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of democracies. The second section of the paper will look at Putin’s efforts to make a stronger central government, giving himself even more power as president. Governors of Russia provinces would lose their power as a result of this change. Finally, the two topics will be tied together and the state of democracy in Russia will be analyzed. Boris Yeltsin won the first democratic presidential election in Russia in June 1991 and was re-elected in July 1996.
This was a significant step for democracy in Russia as was Putin’s presidential victory in the March 2000 election. However, the collapse of communism in Russia was superficial and partial. Well connected people and organizations, especially the securities services started clawing back power right away, and many became rich and powerful. 5 Today in Russia, with regular elections and a market economy, as well as an increase in travel by citizens, there is some degree of a democracy in place, however it is still fairly weak. One reason why a greater sense of democracy is not enjoyed in Russia is because of the powers of the president.
The Russian president has more power over Russia than the United States president does over America. The Russian president, for example, may issue decrees or other executive decisions without parliamentary approval. “He may even possess the authority to declare a state of national emergency and govern with little or no parliamentary check on his authority. The parliament, for its part, can be constitutionally forbidden to propose or pass laws in certain areas that are the exclusive preserve of presidential or cabinet authority. “6 Russia has been a presidential-parliamentary democracy since 1992.
The main purpose of this type of democracy is to speed up the process of making governmental decisions. The power of Russian presidents is an attempt to avoid the protracted wrangling that often takes place when legislators dominate lawmaking. 7 “Presidential-parliamentary democracies are thus intended above all to maximize the efficiency of the decision-making process and the stability of executive authority”8 The problem, as in Russia’s case is that a president with too much power may abuse it, perhaps threatening the very principles of negotiation, accommodation, and the country’s democracy.
Under the presidential-parliamentary system voters elect the president, as well as the lower and upper house. The Prime Minister, who is head of the government with decision-making powers, is responsible to the legislature as well as the president. The Russian constitution created a two-chamber legislature, the lower house, the State Duma, with 450 deputies elected on territorial basis; and the upper house, the Federation Council, with 178 deputies, 2 from each of Russia’s 89 republics and regions. 9 The Prime Minister approves the work of the Lower House and then it goes to President who is head of the state with decision-making powers.
Under most presidential-parliamentary systems there is a dual executive of power between the Prime Minister and the President. This is only somewhat true in the case of Russia, as Putin’s powers are so strong and therefore, Russian Prime Minister; Mikhail Kasyanov’s powers are very restricted. One of the reasons Putin has more power than Bush, is because Russia is lacking a system of checks and balances similar to the United States. The United States system has a separation of powers between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches of government.
This gives all three of these branches unique power so one branch of government doesn’t have all the control. It allows different branches to oversee decisions made by their counterparts. Russia is lacking a checks and balances system, which would strengthen their legislature and spread the balance of powers, making their president less powerful and increase the current state of democracy. Although Russia is a Presidential-parliamentary government the distribution of power is minimal making the President’s power dominating.
It analyzing Russia’s democracy it is important to understand the concepts of parliamentary democracies compared to presidential democracies. The defining principle of a parliamentary government is that the government is selected in two-step process. First of all, the people elect the national legislature, and then the Lower House elects or approves the government. 10 In this system there is a fusion of powers between the legislature and the executive different from the separation of powers as in the United States government.
In other words, the government in a parliamentary system stems from the legislature and is formally accountable to it. 11 Similarly to every form of government, a parliamentary system has its strengths and its weaknesses. Although this system does not have the system of checks and balances as in the United States, it does a nonconfidence vote, which provides a check on the government. Other benefits of a parliamentary democracy include the idea of a majority government, which allows a party with a majority government to govern the country very effectively.
On the other hand, without a majority government the system can be very unstable. Another weakness of this system is the fact that because party loyalty is necessary, individual members may have to vote against the wishes of their constituents. 12 One of the main strengths of a presidential democracy, which is not present in Russia’s Presidential-parliamentary democracy, is the fact that a separation of powers discourages concentration of power. As well, checks and balances limit the power of the other branches of government. A weakness of a presidential democracy is that voters cannot pin responsibility on any one party.
As well, although the separations of powers distribute power to the different branches of government, it often makes it impossible to run an efficient government. It is difficult to state which system is better for democracy, as they bot have advantages and disadvantages, but it is very important to understand these two different democracies in analyzing the current political situation in Russia. President Putin’s efforts to reassert the authority of a central government over the entire country is not a move towards democracy, rather a move that will strengthen his already mighty powers.
Putin believes that tightening control over the regions is essential to help fix the ailing economy and keep Russia from breaking up. The governors of wealthier regions are often reluctant to share revenues with the central government creating a great degree of inequality across the country. Although there is some logic behind Putin’s plan, this plan make Russia even less democratic than it currently is. Two of Putin’s proposals are being seen as the most profound changes to Russia’s government structure since former President Boris Yeltsin rewrote the constitution in 1993 after putting down a parliamentary rebellion with tanks.
“The first came with the announcement by Putin that he would appoint seven governor general’s – posts some see as equivalent to vice president – each designated to oversee a large swath of the country. The second, in line with the first announcement, came last week when Putin said in a nationally televised address that he would be further moving to rein in the country’s 89 regional governors by establishing a mechanism to remove the unruly among them. Putin is also looking to overhaul the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, currently compromising regional leaders.
With Putin’s power as the president as well with the support of the Duma, it should be very easy for him to make changes as he wishes. The fact that these reforms would give Putin even more power should be of great concern of Russian citizens. “Everyone supports the idea of making government more manageable, but no one is sure what is going to come next. Lysenko agreed the moves would drastically increase Putin’s power and he conceded that it is difficult to tell whether it is a move toward democracy or dictatorship. “15 These changes drastically shift the balance of power between the center and the regions.
If they are ordered from above, rather than resulting from amendments to the constitution or through a referendum, they are far more likely not to work as intended, if they take hold at all. This approach Putin is taking on this situation further diminishes the rule law in Russia. If these changes were to take place it would be difficult to view Russia as a serious presidential-parliamentary government. The parliamentary aspect of the Russian government is already weak and these new moves would weaken it further and increase presidential powers.
With such a weak and easily controlled Duma, we may get completely authoritarian presidential power, that is for all intents and purposes a ‘soft dictatorship’ which abides by all the technically democratic and parliamentary procedures. “16 Governors believe that this plan will undermine democracy and give the president too much power. Governors know and understand the real situation in the regions better than anyone else at the federal level, and blocking them from cooperating directly with the country’s top leadership does not support Putin’s claims for democracy.
Russia’s current presidential-parliamentary democracy is threatened by the reforms Putin is planning on making. By centralizing the government, it seriously threatens the already weak power distribution. This move would make Russia more of a presidential democracy, which would make Russia closer to a dictatorship style government. Putin’s reforms should be done through constitutional amendments rather than simply using his power for his benefit. If Putin is serious about democracy in Russia he has to surrender some of his power, and distribute it accordingly through the parliament and government.
The outcome of Putin’s reforms will have a serious impact on Russia as they unfold, as Putin jeopardizes democracy, essentially flirting with dictatorship, which is the last thing Russia presently needs, considering its past and their attempts to distance themselves from it. The Russian president currently has too much power, and Putin’s attempts to strengthen the federal government will only make the matter worse. The Russian president has more power than most other presidential democracies do.
Putin’s attempt to broaden federal powers in attempt to strengthen Russia will only weaken the degree of democracy the country currently enjoys, moving closer, not further, from their past communist governments. To date, Putin has been fairly successful as Russia’s president but if he truly wants to be a success he must continue to strive towards democracy. Doing this requires more than regular elections and a market economy. Putin has too much power as it is, and efforts to centralize the government will not help Russia obtain a greater degree of democracy, which is what he claims to be essential for Russia.