GOVERNMENT AND POST-SOVIET DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA

GOVERNMENT OF RUSSIA

Government type: Russia has a strong, centralized government with a strong presidency, relatively weak parliament and a powerful agricultural, military-industrial bureaucracy and financial interests that have come increasingly under the control of the Kremlin.

Russia has an elected Parliamentary government. The president is chosen in a separate election. The prime minister is appointed by the president and is not the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament as is the case with many parliament governments. Major elections are held every four years. In the past no one party has controlled a majority of the seats. Often the president is from a different party than the one that has the most in parliament.

Russia is a democratic federation of 89 subnational jurisdictions, classified as republics, oblasts (provinces), autonomous oblasts, autonomous regions, and territories. At the national level, the constitution of 1993 calls for three branches of government—the executive, legislative, and judiciary—but it does not stipulate equal powers for each. In that system, the president of Russia has formidable powers as head of the armed forces and the Security Council. Those powers include the authority to appoint a wide variety of government officials without effective oversight or check. The houses of the bicameral legislative branch have offered only weak opposition because of their constitutional position and because effective opposition parties do not exist. The judiciary, a rubber-stamp branch of government under the Soviet system, has moved only slowly to assert an independent authority. President Vladimir Putin has used this structure to enhance the power of his office and dominate the government. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

The president, elected to a four-year term, sets basic tone of domestic and foreign policy, represents state at home and abroad. The prime minister appoints Government (cabinet) to administer executive-branch functions. The prime minister administers policy according to constitution, laws, and presidential decrees. The Parliament, a bicameral Federal Assembly, has lower house, State Duma, with 450 members serving four-year terms; The Upper house, Federation Council, has 178 seats (two members representing the executive and legislative bodies of each of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions). The three highest judicial bodies are the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and Superior Court of Arbitration. Judges are appointed by the president with confirmation from the Federation Council required. Jurisprudence is advancing slowly toward Western standards; jury trials held only in some regions.[Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Source: Moscow Branch of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Names of Russia and the Soviet Union

Formal Name:Russian Federation (local long form: Rossiyskaya Federatsiya). Short Form: Russia (local short form: Rossiya). Term for Citizen(s): Russian(s). Former names: Russian Empire, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Capital: Moscow

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the successor state to the Russian Empire. Also known as the Soviet Union, it was officially founded by Vladimir I. Lenin, head of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), in 1922. Dissolved on December 25, 1991.

Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (Rossiyskaya Sovetskaya Federativnaya Sotsialisticheskaya Respublika--RSFSR) was the official name of the largest of the fifteen union republics of the Soviet Union. Inhabited predominantly by Russians, the RSFSR comprised approximately 75 percent of the area of the Soviet Union, about 62 percent of its population, and more than 60 percent of its economic output.

The Russian Federation won independence in August 1991 from the Soviet Union. Russia officially marks its independence on June 12, 1991, the date of the Russian Republic’s declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union. Notable earlier dates: 1157 (Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal created); 16 January 1547 (Tsardom of Muscovy established); 22 October 1721 (Russian Empire proclaimed); 30 December 1922 (Soviet Union established). National holiday: Russia Day, 12 June (1990)

Russian Flag and Symbols

Flag description: three equal horizontal bands of white (top), blue, and red. The colors may have been based on those of the Dutch flag; despite many popular interpretations, there is no official meaning assigned to the colors of the Russian flag; this flag inspired several other Slav countries to adopt horizontal tricolors of the same colors but in different arrangements, and so red, blue, and white became the Pan-Slav colors. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

National symbol(s): bear, double-headed eagle; national colors: white, blue, red. The two headed eagle—one looking east, the other west—dates back to Tsarist times and is featured on the national coat of arms. Putin restored some Soviet symbols. He brought back the Red Star for the military and the state prize known as the Order of Lenin.

Soviet Flag: In 1889, the International Working Men's Association (also known as the First International) declared the red flag in commemoration of those who spilled their blood fighting for labor rights. The hammer is a symbol of factory workers and the sickle is a symbol of agricultural workers.

Russian National Anthem

National anthem: name: "Gimn Rossiyskoy Federatsii" (National Anthem of the Russian Federation); lyrics/music: Sergey Vladimirovich MIKHALKOV/Aleksandr Vasilyevich ALEKSANDROV note: in 2000, Russia adopted the tune of the anthem of the former Soviet Union (composed in 1939); the lyrics, also adopted in 2000, were written by the same person who authored the Soviet lyrics in 1943

In 2000, the Soviet national anthem was brought backs as the national anthem of Russia. The original version was picked by Stalin in 1943 to replace the revolutionary hymn Internationale. The words were changed and lines like "O Party of Lenin, the strength of people,/ To Communism's triumph lead us on!" were removed.

The Communists were happy about the new anthem. The said the song made them feel proud. President Boris Yeltsin, dissident writers and former gulag inmates were not pleased about the change. The old anthem brought back painful memories of the Soviet era.

In 1991, Yeltsin had selected a new anthem with the generic title "Patriot's Song" written by the 19th century composer Mikhail Glinka. The song had no words and was generally disliked by ordinary Russians.

Government Themes in Russia

Russia has a long history of centralized government and power. Although it covers a huge area, the ideas of regionalism and federalism never took hold. In the czarist times regions were set up to provide tribute the czar. Under the Soviets, everything was tightly controlled by the central government and it became that way again under Putin.

Problems with the Russian government include a weak central government and regional separatism. Corruption and ineptitude has caused many Russians to lose faith and become cynical towards their government.

Feckless bureaucrats have been a fixture of Russia for a long time. In The Idiot, Dostiyevsky wrote that in Russia “people are constantly complaining that we have no practical men.” He was referring to incompetent bureaucrats who let crops rot in the fields and were unable to prevent trains from crashing into one another, a tradition that continued under the Soviets. Repression is nothing new either. The famous French traveler Marquis de Custine wrote: in 1775 “The numerous questions I had to meet, and then the precautionary forms that it was necessary to pass through, warned me that I was entering the Empire of Fear.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia was governed by autocratic rulers who suppressed revolutionary ideals imported from the West. Major social and economic reform programs in the 1860s and at the turn of the century failed to address Russia’s most acute problems.

Government Under Communists

Elisa Watson wrote in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia: “Under Soviet rule, Communist Party leaders, government officials and heads of institutions and industries effectively formed a ruling body. Party members, supervisors, collective farm chairmen, and school teachers represented authority in everyday life, earning respect according to their individual qualities. Major decisions were made in Moscow, and formal opposition was not tolerated. Factions of local nomenklaura schemed aggressively against each other for government wealth and favor.”

The Soviet Union formally came into being under the treaty of union in December 1922, which was signed by Russia and three other union republics--Belorussia (now Belarus), Ukraine, and what was then the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (an entity including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia). "Soviet" means "council."

Under the treaty, Russia became known officially as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The treaty of union was incorporated into the first Soviet constitution, which was promulgated in 1924. Nominally, the borders of each subunit were drawn to incorporate the territory of a specific nationality. The constitution endowed the new republics with sovereignty, although they were said to have voluntarily delegated most of their sovereign powers to the Soviet center. Formal sovereignty was evidenced by the existence of flags, constitutions, and other state symbols, and by the republics' constitutionally guaranteed "right" to secede from the union. Russia was the largest of the union republics in terms of territory and population. Ethnic Russians dominated Soviet politics and government; they also controlled local administration. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

See Separate Article on Communism.

Development of the Russian Government in the Gorbachev Era

Because of the Russians' dominance in the affairs of the union, the RSFSR failed to develop some of the institutions of governance and administration that were typical of public life in the other republics: a republic-level communist party, a Russian academy of sciences, and Russian branches of trade unions, for example. As the titular nationalities of the other fourteen union republics began to call for greater republic rights in the late 1980s, however, ethnic Russians also began to demand the creation or strengthening of various specifically Russian institutions in the RSFSR. Certain policies of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91) also encouraged nationalities in the union republics, including the Russian Republic, to assert their rights. These policies included glasnost (literally, public voicing), which made possible open discussion of democratic reforms and long-ignored public problems such as pollution. Glasnost also brought constitutional reforms that led to the election of new republic legislatures with substantial blocs of pro-reform representatives. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

In Russia a new legislature, called the Congress of People's Deputies, was elected in March 1990 in a largely free and competitive vote. Upon convening in May, the congress elected Boris N. Yeltsin, a onetime Gorbachev protégé who had been exiled from the top party echelon because of his radical reform proposals, as president of the congress's permanent working body, the Supreme Soviet. The next month, the congress declared Russia's sovereignty over its natural resources and the primacy of Russia's laws over those of the central Soviet government. During 1990-91, the RSFSR enhanced its sovereignty by establishing republic branches of organizations such as the communist party, the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, radio and television broadcasting facilities, and the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB). *

In 1991 Russia created a new executive office, the presidency, following the example of Gorbachev, who had created such an office for himself in 1990. Russia held a popular election that conferred legitimacy on the office, whereas Gorbachev had eschewed such an election and had himself appointed by the Soviet parliament. Despite Gorbachev's attempts to discourage Russia's electorate from voting for him, Yeltsin was popularly elected as president in June 1991, handily defeating five other candidates with more than 57 percent of the vote. *

Collapse of Soviet Rule in Russia

Yeltsin used his role as president to trumpet Russian sovereignty and patriotism, and his legitimacy as president was a major cause of the collapse of the coup by hard-line government and party officials against Gorbachev in August 1991. The coup leaders had attempted to overthrow Gorbachev in order to halt his plan to sign a confederation treaty that they believed would wreck the Soviet Union. Yeltsin defiantly opposed the coup plotters and called for Gorbachev's restoration, rallying the Russian public. Most important, Yeltsin's opposition led elements in the "power ministries" that controlled the military, the police, and the KGB to refuse to obey the orders of the coup plotters. The opposition led by Yeltsin, combined with the irresolution of the plotters, caused the coup to collapse after three days. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Following the failed coup, Gorbachev found a fundamentally changed constellation of power, with Yeltsin in de facto control of much of a sometimes recalcitrant Soviet administrative apparatus. Although Gorbachev returned to his position as Soviet president, events began to bypass him. Communist party activities were suspended. Most of the union republics quickly declared their independence, although many appeared willing to sign Gorbachev's vaguely delineated confederation treaty. The Baltic states achieved full independence, and they quickly received diplomatic recognition from many nations. Gorbachev's rump government recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in August and September 1991.

In late 1991, the Yeltsin government assumed budgetary control over Gorbachev's rump government. Russia did not declare its independence, and Yeltsin continued to hope that some form of confederation could be established. In December, one week after the Ukrainian Republic approved independence by referendum, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus met to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS--). In response to calls by the Central Asian and other union republics for admission, another meeting was held in Alma-Ata, on December 21, to form an expanded CIS. At that meeting, all parties declared that the 1922 treaty of union creating the Soviet Union was annulled and that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev announced the decision officially December 25. Russia gained international recognition as the principal successor to the Soviet Union, receiving the Soviet Union's permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and positions in other international and regional organizations. The CIS states also agreed that Russia initially would take over Soviet embassies and other properties abroad.

In October 1991, during the "honeymoon" period after his resistance to the Soviet coup, Yeltsin convinced the legislature to grant him important special executive powers for one year so that he might implement his economic reforms. In November 1991, he appointed a new government, with himself as acting prime minister, a post he held until the appointment of Yegor Gaydar as acting prime minister in June 1992.

Early Democracy in Post-Soviet Russia

In the 1980s and 90s, democracy went through four stages in Russia: 1) dominated by Communist holdovers; 2) free and chaotic; 3) dominated by the oligarchs (tycoons) and big business; and 4) dominated by Putin’s Kremlin. Under Yeltsin there was a battle between the Communist-controlled Duma and the Yeltisin executive branch, which represented the interests of business and liberalism. Under Putin, the power of the Communist party was diminished but replaced by Putin-style authoritarianism and politics became stable but controlled by Putin.

Former Gorbachev advisor Yuri Afanasyev told the New York Times, "The basis of democracy in most countries is the middle class, but we've never had them in Russia and don't have them now. So democracy here begins and ends in our own feelings and ideas, but it doesn't have roots in the social structure and economy. That's why its is so shaky and weak."

Democracy became the butt of jokes in Russia. A lot of puns were made with the Russian word dermo, which means crap. Jeffrey Taylor wrote in the Atlantic that Russian friends told him "Russians were, above all, an unpredictable people, given to wild swings and dangerous extremes, lacking the patience of principal that democracy demanded."

In practice democracy has been “treated as little more than a license for a well-positioned few to steal and loot old Soviet assets and exploit Russian’s baser instincts.” Democracy has a bad name in Russia in part because it allowed a small group of oligarchs to become fabulously rich millions became mired in poverty.

Democracy and Authoritarianism in Russia

The new Russian government was not taken over by reformers, intellectuals and dissidents as was in the case in, say, the Czech Republic, rather it was commandeered by ex-Communists and "pragmatists" (entrepreneurs intent on grabbing control of state assets). A 1997 revealed that 78 percent of the political leaders and 61 percent of the economic leaders emerged from the Communist party elite.

One environmentalist told the Washington Post, "People confuse things. They are not afraid of authority, but they have lost faith. No matter who is elected, they say, nothing is going to be changed. Voters understand, it is total arbitrary rule in this country. The authorities just do what the want."

Some view Gen. Augusto Pinochet's of Chile as the model for Russia. Pinochet promoted free market capitalism whole restricting freedoms and ruthlessly crushing dissent, resulting in a booming economy. This idea is similar to the model proposed by the early 20th century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, which came in vogue in the 1990s. He opposed Communist totalitarianism but also believed that democracy was impossible. Instead he advocated "a firm national-patriotic and, in theory, liberal dictatorship."

One Russian analyst told U.S. News and World Report: “Chosing beteern democracy and a strong dictatorship is not an actual issue for the average Russian. They don’t see it as an actual choice. For them the issues are stadility and qualty of life.”

Post-Soviet Russian Government Under Yeltsin

Since gaining its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia faced serious challenges in its efforts to forge a political system to follow nearly seventy-five years of centralized, totalitarian rule. For instance, leading figures in the legislative and executive branches have put forth opposing views of Russia's political direction and the governmental instruments that should be used to follow it. That conflict reached a climax in September and October 1993, when President Boris N. Yeltsin used military force to dissolve the parliament and called for new legislative elections. This event marked the end of Russia's first constitutional period, which was defined by the much-amended constitution adopted by the Russian Republic in 1978. A new constitution, creating a strong presidency, was approved by referendum in December 1993. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

With a new constitution and a new parliament representing diverse parties and factions, Russia's political structure subsequently showed signs of stabilization. However, since that time Russians have continued to debate the future of their political system, with Western-style democracy and authoritarianism being two widely considered alternatives. As the transition period extended into the mid-1990s, the power of the national government continued to wane as Russia's regions gained political and economic concessions from Moscow. Although the struggle between the executive and the legislative branches was partially resolved by the new constitution, the two branches continued to represent fundamentally opposing visions of Russia's future. The executive was the center of reform, and the lower house of the parliament, the State Duma, was a bastion of antireform communists and nationalists. *

Russia's political culture made long strides toward democracy in the first five years of the post-Soviet era. By mid-1996 numerous political parties with widely varying agendas and viewpoints had participated in three free national elections--two legislative, one presidential. Although the sitting president enjoyed a distinct advantage in media coverage, all sides agreed after the 1996 election that the people had spoken. Observers noted the similarity of the 1996 campaign to those in the West, including barnstorming speeches, generous promises to special interests, and ample use of "photo opportunities." Never in the history of Russia had a head of state been subjected to open public evaluation and then been peacefully assured of a new term in power. Certainly this was a complete reversal of the Soviet Union's programmed, one-party political rituals. *

Although the process of choosing a leader has been democratized, the process of governance remains a hybrid of Soviet and Western practices. The first administration of Boris Yeltsin was a combination of bold democratic initiatives and secretive decision making by committees and individuals beyond public view and responsibility. As criticism of Yeltsin grew in 1993 and 1994, his hold on power depended increasingly on presidential decrees rather than on open consultation with other branches of government or with the Russian people. Yeltsin's relatively easy reelection in mid-1996 fueled hopes that a second administration would revive some of the democratic processes that had enthused Russians as Yeltsin struggled with Gorbachev for Russia's sovereignty before the demise of the Soviet Union. As a leader, however, Yeltsin showed little interest in the routine of day-to-day governance, and he often exercised poor judgment in delegating authority. Meanwhile, a formidable array of antireform factions retained their power base in the State Duma, and Yeltsin's precarious health further endangered the continuation of his reform program. *

Reforms Under Yeltsin

During 1992 Yeltsin and his reforms came under increasing attack by former communist party members and officials, extreme nationalists, and others calling for reform to be slowed or halted in Russia. A locus of this opposition was increasingly the bicameral parliament, whose upper house was the Congress of People's Deputies (CPD) and lower house the Supreme Soviet. The lower house was headed by Ruslan Khasbulatov, who became Yeltsin's most vocal opponent. Under the 1978 constitution, the parliament was the supreme organ of power in Russia. After Russia added the office of president in 1991, the division of powers between the two branches was ambiguous. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Although Yeltsin managed to beat back most challenges to his reform program when the CPD met in April 1992, in December he suffered a significant loss of his special executive powers. The CPD ordered him to halt appointments of administrators in the localities and also the practice of naming additional local oversight emissaries (termed "presidential representatives"). Yeltsin also lost the power to issue special decrees concerning the economy, while retaining his constitutional power to issue decrees in accordance with existing laws. When his attempt to secure confirmation of Gaydar as prime minister was rejected, Yeltsin appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom the parliament approved because he was viewed as more economically conservative than Gaydar. After contentious negotiations between the parliament and Yeltsin, the two sides agreed to hold a national referendum to allow the population to determine the basic division of powers between the two branches of government. In the meantime, proposals for extreme limitation of Yeltsin's power were tabled.

However, early 1993 saw increasing tension between Yeltsin and the parliament over the language of the referendum and power sharing. In mid-March 1993, an emergency session of the CPD rejected Yeltsin's proposals on power sharing and canceled the referendum, again opening the door to legislation that would shift the balance of power away from the president. Faced with these setbacks, Yeltsin addressed the nation directly to announce a "special regime," under which he would assume extraordinary executive power pending the results of a referendum on the timing of new legislative elections, on a new constitution, and on public confidence in the president and vice president. After the Constitutional Court declared his announcement unconstitutional, Yeltsin backed down.

Despite Yeltsin's change of heart, a second extraordinary session of the CPD took up discussion of emergency measures to defend the constitution, including impeachment of the president. Although the impeachment vote failed, the CPD set new terms for a popular referendum. The legislature's version of the referendum asked whether citizens had confidence in Yeltsin, approved of his reforms, and supported early presidential and legislative elections. Under the CPD's terms, Yeltsin would need the support of 50 percent of eligible voters, rather than 50 percent of those actually voting, to avoid an early presidential election. In the vote on April 25, Russians failed to provide this level of approval, but a majority of voters approved Yeltsin's policies and called for new legislative elections. Yeltsin termed the results, which were a serious blow to the prestige of the parliament, a mandate for him to continue in power.

In June 1993, Yeltsin decreed the creation of a special constitutional convention to examine the draft constitution that he had presented in April. This convention was designed to circumvent the parliament, which was working on its own draft constitution. As expected, the two main drafts contained contrary views of legislative-executive relations. The convention, which included delegates from major political and social organizations and the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions, approved a compromise draft constitution in July 1993, incorporating some aspects of the parliament's draft. The parliament failed to approve the draft, however.

In late September 1993, Yeltsin responded to the impasse in legislative-executive relations by repeating his announcement of a constitutional referendum, but this time he followed the announcement by dissolving the parliament and announcing new legislative elections for December. The CPD again met in emergency session, confirmed Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoy as president, and voted to impeach Yeltsin. On September 27, military units surrounded the legislative building (popularly known as the White House), but 180 delegates refused to leave the building. After a two-week standoff, Rutskoy urged supporters outside the legislative building to overcome Yeltsin's military forces. Firefights and destruction of property resulted at several locations in Moscow. The next day, under the direction of Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev, tanks fired on the White House, and military forces occupied the building and the rest of the city. This open, violent confrontation remained a backdrop to Yeltsin's relations with the legislative branch for the next three years.

Clashes of Power, 1993-96

Although the 1993 constitution weakened their standing vis-à-vis the presidency, the parliaments elected in 1993 and 1995 nonetheless used their powers to shape legislation according to their own precepts and to defy Yeltsin on some issues. An early example was the February 1994 State Duma vote to grant amnesty to the leaders of the 1991 Moscow coup. Yeltsin vehemently denounced this action, although it was within the constitutional purview of the State Duma. In October 1994, both legislative chambers passed a law over Yeltsin's veto requiring the Government to submit quarterly reports on budget expenditures to the State Duma and adhere to other budgetary guidelines. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the most significant executive-legislative clash since 1993, the State Duma overwhelmingly voted no confidence in the Government in June 1995. The vote was triggered by a Chechen rebel raid into the neighboring Russian town of Budennovsk, where the rebels were able to take more than 1,000 hostages. Dissatisfaction with Yeltsin's economic reforms also was a factor in the vote. A second motion of no confidence failed to carry in early July. In March 1996, the State Duma again incensed Yeltsin by voting to revoke the December 1991 resolution of the Russian Supreme Soviet abrogating the 1922 treaty under which the Soviet Union had been founded. That resolution had prepared the way for formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

In his February 1996 state of the federation speech, Yeltsin commended the previous parliament for passing a number of significant laws, and he noted with relief the "civil" resolution of the June 1995 no-confidence conflict. He complained, however, that the Federal Assembly had not acted on issues such as the private ownership of land, a tax code, and judicial reform. Yeltsin also was critical of legislation that he had been forced to return to the parliament because it contravened the constitution and existing law, and of legislative attempts to pass fiscal legislation in violation of the constitutional stricture that such bills must be preapproved by the Government. He noted that he would continue to use his veto power against ill-drafted bills and his power to issue decrees on issues he deemed important, and that such decrees would remain in force until suitable laws were passed. The State Duma passed a resolution in March 1996 demanding that Yeltsin refrain from returning bills to the parliament for redrafting, arguing that the president was obligated either to sign bills or to veto them.

Rise of Regional Governments Russia in the 1990s

Between September 1996 and March 1997, Yeltsin's administration faced a new political challenge when a series of regional elections provided the KPRF and its nationalist allies another opportunity to weaken Yeltsin's political base. Fifty-two of Russia's eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions were to elect chief executives during that period, and all of those executives are ex officio members of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament and a bastion of Yeltsin support until 1997. (The chief executives of republics are called presidents; those of other jurisdictions carry the title governor or administrative head.) [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1997 *]

Before the elections began, experts identified fifteen of those constituencies, primarily in the "Red Belt" along the southern border from the North Caucasus to the Far East, as sure to elect communist leaders. At the end of 1996, a Yeltsin-appointed incumbent chief executive had been defeated in twenty-four of the forty-four elections decided to that point. The KPRF had backed fifteen of the new officials, and six had had Yeltsin's support. Among the victors were former vice president and outspoken Yeltsin critic Aleksandr Rutskoy, who was elected governor of Kursk Oblast, and Vasiliy Starodubtsev, a central figure in the 1991 coup against the Gorbachev government, who was elected governor of Tula Oblast. In most cases, successful candidates took less partisan positions and were more ready to negotiate with their opposition than experts had predicted when the elections began. Incumbents generally fared better in northern and urban regions where economic conditions were the most favorable. Yeltsin's doubtful health and the rescinding of his 1996 campaign spending promises hampered some progovernment candidates. All the chief executives elected in 1996 were expected to wield greater political power because they now had direct mandates rather than presidential appointments, and that legitimacy also would bolster the power of the Federation Council vis-à-vis the State Duma in the Federal Assembly.*

In 1996 the central government's economic and legislative control of subnational jurisdictions continued to slip away as the power of regional chief executives increased proportionally. Governors such as Yevgeniy Nazdratenko of strategically vital Maritime (Primorskiy) Territory on the Pacific coast and Eduard Rossel' of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Urals already had established personal fiefdoms outside Moscow's control. Nazdratenko openly challenged the national administration on a number of issues, including the transfer of a small parcel of his territory's land to China as part of a Sino-Russian border treaty. In 1993 Sverdlovsk Oblast briefly declared itself a republic under Rossel'. As of January 1997, Moscow had signed bilateral agreements, establishing a wide variety of power-sharing relationships, with twenty-six subnational jurisdictions.*

By 1996 regional governments raised 50 percent of taxes and accounted for 70 percent of government spending in Russia. Although only fifteen of eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions were net contributors to the federal budget and sixty-seven relied on federal subsidies for pensions, in 1996 Moscow still had no centralized system to account for movement of funds between the federal government and the regions. Many jurisdictions complained that the 1997 budget did not allocate sufficient funds to them to compensate for their tax payments to Moscow. As of March 1997, no subnational jurisdiction had received a full allotment of federal pension funds, and only ten jurisdictions had paid their federal taxes in full.*

Experts predicted that tensions between Moscow and the subnational governments would intensify during the shaping of Russia's new federal system, especially as that system addresses the question of who controls the country's vast national resources. After the regional elections, a loose coalition of jurisdictions that were net contributors to the federal budget ("donor regions") was in a position to gain significant economic concessions from the federal government. At the same time, the eight regional economic associations, which include all of Russia's eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions except Chechnya, showed new cohesiveness and also were expected to gain greater autonomy and attention from Moscow in 1997. Those associations are: the Far East and Baikal Association; the Siberian Accord Association; the Greater Volga Association; the Central Russia Association; the Cooperation Association of North Caucasus Republics, Territories, and Oblasts; the Black Earth Association; the Urals Regional Association; and the North-West Association.*

In October presidential chief of staff Chubays began a campaign to reverse the movement toward regional autonomy. Chubays called for a review of the many regional laws that contravene the national constitution, in an effort to curtail the autonomy that such legislation encourages. (Several of the regional constitutions adopted after 1991 contain language contradicting the national constitution, and the electoral laws of some twenty-seven regions reportedly violate federal law.) However, the project was postponed because regional procurators, who would be responsible for such an investigation, lack sufficient authority over regional officials. After the elections of 1996-97 gave most regional leaders a popular mandate, the lack of federal sanctions on subnational jurisdictions violating federal law became a more significant threat to the integrity of the federation as well as to human rights and the balance of political power within jurisdictions. Meanwhile, local and municipal administrations chafed under restrictions imposed by regional jurisdictions, just as the latter complained about Moscow's restrictions.*

Putin and His KGB Presidency

As the Russian president, Putin has been very systematic and patient, carefully analyzing policies through cost-benefit analysis. Half of Putin's official decisions were classified as secret. He liked to do things in a top-down “Vertical Power” sort of way and expected loyalty from those below him the same he way he was loyal to those who were above him in the past.

The machinations of power under Putin have been largely opaque. Putin placed members of the KGB in key positions in his government. Explaining why, he said, "I have know them for many years and I trust them. It had nothing to do with ideology. It’s only a matter of their professional qualities and personal relationships.”

Putin was accused of attempting to restore the entire KGB system in an operation code-named “putting thing back in order in the country.” A few months after becoming President for the first time he participated in special closed-door ceremony attended by 300 KGB generals at the former KGB headquarters to mark the founding of the cheka, the original Soviet secret police. During a speech Putin announced: “Instruction No. 1 for obtaining full power has been completed.” Later he praised Stalin, described the break up of the Soviet Union as a ‘tragedy” and called the man who tried to oust Gorbachev in 1990 as “noble.”

Former KGB and FSB men were appointed defense minister, interior minister and head of the anti-drug agency. They were also awarded powerful positions in regional politics and became business leaders.

Putin Reigns in the Regional Governments

The presidency made strong by Yeltsin was made stronger by Putin. Putin reduced the power of Russia's 89 elected regional governorships by dividing Russia into seven federal zones, headed by seven super governors. Five of the seven were formal generals from the military or security forces. The plan was widely praised as way to control lawlessness, corruption and inefficiency that prevailed in the hinterlands. Critics claimed the move was anti-democratic.

In 2000, Putin introduced legislation that allowed the president to dismiss elected governors and dissolve local legislatures whose policies are determined by the courts to violate federal law, and for governors to sack local officials.

Putin also changed the composition of the upper house from local elected officials to legislatures appointed by Moscow. This prevented regional governors from automatically getting a seat. Bowing to demands by Putin, the governors voted to abolish their own seats in the upper house

The changes greatly weakened the power of the regional governors, who were often unruly and openly defied the Kremlin. Among those who praised Putin for doing this was Gorbachev, who gave Putin credit for reigning in the power of regional leaders and forcing them to abide by national laws rather than create their own fiefdoms.

Putin’s Authoritarian Changes

Putin consolidated power by making authoritarian changes in line with his system of “managed democracy” and “vertical of power.” The December 2004 election for regional governors was scrapped. Instead the governors were selected by the president and approved by regional assemblies, which were largely loyal to the Kremlin. The West criticized the move as an erosion of democracy. Putin argued it was necessary for national unity. Rather than being upset many of the regional leaders praised the proposal. A force behind these changes was the Besland school massacre, which left hundreds of school children dead at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Putin also replaced direct elections for half the members of parliament with a party list system in which people voted for parties and the parties selected who would take the seats in parliament. Under this system parliament members were selected proportionally based on party lists compiled by the main parties, all of which were centered in Moscow and susceptible to Kremlin influence. This effectively made the Duma a rubber stamp body.

Other changes included banning coalitions between smaller parties by preventing them from merging their party lists and raising the minimum vote necessary for a party to enter from five percent to seven percent. For a political party to be officially registered it needed to have 50,000 members in each of Russia’s 89 provinces. No sector of the government was spared. The entire system of checks and balances was compromised if not undermined. Control seemed to be the central theme of the changes, and the fact that democracy was too messy and uncontrollable and had to be reigned in.

U.S. Senator John McCain has accused Putin of staging a “creeping coup” Putin said the changes were necessary to create a stable, multi-party system in Russia. “If no environment is created for the growth of the parties’ authority, we will never have a real multiparty system.” He added, it was necessary to create “parties that are capable of taking a real part in the political life of the country and providing for unified national interests.” On democracy, Putin said: “If by democracy one means dissolution of the state, then who needs democracy. Why is democracy needed? To make people’s lives better, to make them free. I don’t think there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

A popular joke that was circulating at the time went: “In America there is democracy. Yo can walk up to the White House and declare that you hate President Bush. In Russia, there is also democracy. You can walk up to the Kremlin and declare that you hate President Bush.” [Source: U.S. News and World Report]

Russia remains an authoritarian state. There are still secret cities where foreigners and even Russians can not go. After winning the 2004 election Putin spoke out for a a more nationalist, even more pro-Soviet state. In a speech in May 2004 he called the break up of the Soviet Union “one of the biggest catastrophes of the 20th century.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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