PRESIDENT, CONSTITUTION AND GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE OF RUSSIA

CONSTITUTION OF RUSSIA

Constitution: several previous (during Russian Empire and Soviet eras); latest drafted 12 July 1993, adopted by referendum 12 December 1993, effective 25 December 1993; amended 2008 [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Soviet Union had a very nice constitution that meant nothing. The old constitution was partly to blame for the 1993 showdown that led Yeltsin to order tanks to blast the Soviet legislature because it failed to clearly define the separate powers of the president and the legislature.

Russian specialist and Librarian of Congress James Billington said, initially the head of the Russian parliamentary commission in charge of creating a constitution wanted to use the U.S. constitution as a model but adopted a French model with a powerful presidency. "As a result they have a parliament but it doesn't really have power and authority and they don't have a separate and independent judiciary. It's a period of chaotic experimentation where they're creating a new kind of society."

History of the 1993 Russian Constitution

The present authoritarian constitution was pushed through by Yeltsin. It was ratified in December 1993 and 1994 through a rigged national referendum. Few people know the laws. Many don’t follow them.

During 1992-93 Yeltsin had argued that the existing, heavily amended 1978 constitution of Russia was obsolete and self-contradictory and that Russia required a new constitution granting the president greater power. This assertion led to the submission and advocacy of rival constitutional drafts drawn up by the legislative and executive branches. The parliament's failure to endorse a compromise was an important factor in Yeltsin's dissolution of the body in September 1993. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In April 1992, Yeltsin calls for a referendum on new constitution that would abolish the Russian Congress of People's Deputies (CPD)—the legislature set up in the Gorbachev era. In April 1993, Yeltsin and CPD issue differing draft versions of new Russian constitution. In July, 1993, Constitutional assembly passed draft Russian constitution worked out by conciliatory committee. In October Yeltsin suspended the Constitutional Court and disbanded city, district, and village soviets.

Yeltsin used his presidential powers to form a sympathetic constitutional assembly, which quickly produced a draft constitution providing for a strong executive. In December 1993, Parliamentary elections and referendum on a new constitution was held. The referendum vote resulted in approval by 58.4 percent of Russia's registered voters. The announced 54.8 percent turnout met the requirement that at least 50 percent of registered voters participate in the referendum. The Constitution was approved.

Late in 1996, another extraconstitutional organ was formed in the Yeltsin administration: a permanent, four-member Consultative Council that included the president, the prime minister, and the speakers of the two houses of the Federal Assembly. The council was to meet twice a month in an effort designed to smooth differences between the presidency and legislature. In the fall of 1996, Yeltsin's illness brought demands from all political factions for clarification of the 1993 constitution's vague language on replacing a disabled head of state. In the first months of 1997, KPRF deputies introduced motions in the State Duma to impeach Yeltsin on health grounds, and the Duma discussed constitutional amendments limiting the powers of the president.*

In October 1996 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.) Successful moves by the central government to take back power from regional governments was not achieved until Putin came to power in 1999.

Content of the Russian Constitution

The 1993 Russian Constitution weakened the parliament and gave the president—then Yeltsin— tsar-like powers and made a mockery of the democratic principles that helped place Yeltsin in power. It also gave Russians the rights of freedom of movement and free speech, endorsed free trade and the ownership of land, and banned torture, censorship and the imposition of an official ideology.

The 1993 constitution declares Russia a democratic, federative, law-based state with a republican form of government. State power is divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Diversity of ideologies and religions is sanctioned, and a state or compulsory ideology may not be adopted. The right to a multiparty political system is upheld. The content of laws must be made public before they take effect, and they must be formulated in accordance with international law and principles. Russian is proclaimed the state language, although the republics of the federation are allowed to establish their own state languages for use alongside Russian. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Amending the constitution requires approval of two-third majority of the lower house (the Duma) and three-forth majority of the upper house (the Federation Council). It also needs approval of the President and two thirds of Russia’s regional legislatures.

Head of Government in Russia

The 1993 constitution created a dual executive consisting of a president and prime minister, but the president is the dominant figure. Russia's strong presidency sometimes is compared with that of Charles de Gaulle (in office 1958-69) in the French Fifth Republic. The constitution spells out many prerogatives specifically, but some powers enjoyed by Yeltsin were developed in an ad hoc manner. Putin centralized power in the presidency after he came to power. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia has a President and Prime Minister. The President is by far the most powerful of the two. The prime minister is appointed by the President and can be fired by him too. The prime minister selects the cabinet with the approval of the president and overseas the cabinet.

The president, who is the head of state, serves a maximum of two six-year terms. However, in 2006, midway in the second term of Vladimir Putin, public opinion favored amending the constitution to allow him to seek a third term. Putin didn’t run. He took a term off—from 2008 to 2012—when he served as Prime Minister and his proxy Dmitry Medvedev served as President—and ran again in 2012 and won.

How was Putin able to serve a third term when the constitution forbids it. William Partlett of the Brookings Institute wrote: “Contrary to popular belief, the rights outlined in the Russian constitution are not guaranteed by political pluralism or a strong judiciary (as they are in the West). Instead, these rights are "guaranteed" by the vast powers of the Russian president. To exercise these powers, the president operates above the system of executive, legislative, and judicial power. Mr. Putin's centralization of political power therefore did not violate the Russian constitution; on the contrary, it finally allowed him to be the authoritarian guarantor of Russian democracy envisioned by the constitution!” [Source: William Partlett, Brookings Institute, March 9, 2012]

Executive branch: chief of state: President Vladimir Vladimirovich PUTIN (since 7 May 2012) head of government: Premier Dmitriy Anatolyevich MEDVEDEV (since 8 May 2012); First Deputy Premier Igor Ivanovich SHUVALOV (since 12 May 2008); Deputy Premiers Arkadiy Vladimirovich DVORKOVICH (since 21 May 2012), Olga Yuryevna GOLODETS (since 21 May 2012), Aleksandr Gennadiyevich KHLOPONIN (since 19 January 2010), Dmitriy Nikolayevich KOZAK (since 14 October 2008), Dmitriy Olegovich ROGOZIN (since 23 December 2011), Sergey Eduardovich PRIKHODKO (since 22 May 2013), Yuriy Petrovich TRUTNEV (since 31 August 2013). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Executive Branch of Russia

The president appoints the prime minister (who is head of government), the head of the Central Bank of Russia, and the chairman of the highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court. Those nominations require confirmation by the State Duma, the lower house of parliament (the Federal Assembly), although the president may dissolve the Duma if it fails three times to confirm a nominee for prime minister. Several other top-level presidential nominations, however, require no approval from the legislative branch. The president also issues decrees that go into effect without the parliament’s approval. Putin, who was elected in 2000 and reelected in 2004, has further improved his position by introducing changes that limit the power of the two houses of the Federal Assembly and through the plurality of his party in the Duma. There is no vice president; if the president is incapacitated, the prime minister succeeds him until a new election is held. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

In 2006 the government, headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, included 16 ministries, some of which are important policy-making centers. The three “power ministries”—Internal Affairs, Defense, and the Federal Security Service, which has ministerial status—are concerned with domestic and international security. The Ministry of Finance is the center of national economic policy making, and since 2000 the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, which merged several Soviet-era ministries, has assumed a powerful economic policy position under German Gref. On many issues, the last two ministries are considered a counterweight to the “power ministries.” Also included at “cabinet level” are the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the chairman of the Central Bank of Russia, and the procurator general, who is the chief prosecutor. Several powerful political “clans,” tacitly united under the Putin administration, are expected to vie for power when Putin leaves office.

In late 2005, Putin authorized the 126-member Public Chamber, a new body designed to streamline public input into legislation and government policy. The appointive membership of the chamber includes accomplished individuals in a variety of civic, academic, and social fields. In its first year of existence, the chamber’s 17 specialized committees intervened in several major policy areas.

President of Russia

The Russian president is elected to a four year term. The president is elected in a direct election. He has almost all of the constitutional power. He can veto legislation and has the power to appoint and fire the prime minister, who serves as a kind of vice president. If the president dies or is impeached, he is replaced by prime minister for three months until an election is organized.

The presidency was made strong by Yeltsin. It was made stronger by Putin (See Yeltsin, Putin). The president overseas defense, security and foreign affairs. He also: 1) can issue decrees; 2) nominates the prime minister; 3) can disband the Duma and call for new elections; 4) selects the cabinet with the prime minister; 5) can veto legislation (a veto can be overridden with a two thirds majority in both houses); 5) and can declare a state of emergency and temporarily curb civil rights.

The primary working President's residence is the Senate building (also known as 1st building) in the Moscow Kremlin complex. The President has a large office in the Kremlin. He also enjoys the use of a wooded estate outside Moscow. When he was president, Yeltsin flew around in an Ilyushin-96. When he flew to Jordan for King Hussein's funeral in 1999, the Russian presidential plane clipped the wing of the plane carrying the Italian prime minister.

President Elections

President elections: The Russian president is elected by popular vote for a six-year term (eligible for a second term); election last held on 4 March 2012 (next to be held in March 2018). The term length was extended from four to six years in late 2008, effective after the 2012 election. There is no vice president; if the president dies in office, cannot exercise his powers because of ill health, is impeached, or resigns, the premier serves as acting president until a new presidential election is held, which must be within three months; premier appointed by the president with the approval of the Duma. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Presidential election results 2012: Vladimir PUTIN elected president (percent of vote): Vladimir PUTIN 63.6 percent, Gennadiy ZYUGANOV 17.2 percent, Mikhail PROKHOROV 8 percent, Vladimir ZHIRINOVSKIY 6.2 percent, Sergey MIRONOV 3.9 percent, other 1.1 percent; Dmitriy MEDVEDEV approved as premier by Duma; vote - 299 to 144. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

It is illegal for a president to campaign openly on behalf of a political party. Running for President as an independent requires collection of 2 million signatures on petitions. In February 2004, lawmakers in the Duma began some discussion of amending the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years.

Perks of the Russian President

The President travels around in an armored Mercedes or SUV that is part of a motorcade that whisks around Moscow at amazingly high speeds. When his motorcade drives through, wide boulevards are swept clear of traffic. No one dares risk trying to make a move when it passes lest they want to get beat up by police or militias guarding the route.

The Rublyovka Highway between the rich suburb of Rublyovka and Moscow for a while was closed down twice a day as Putin commutes between his estate and the Kremlin in a black Mercedes 600 Pullman.

In the early 2000s, the 1,000-room 18th century Konstantinorsky Palace in Strelna, near Putin hometown of St. Petersburg, was given a multi-million dollar makeover so that Putin could use it as a retreat. It has own helipad, port for the presidential yacht, a network of canals, a man-made island, drawbridges, fountains, an arched entrance, a grand pavilion, 20 red brick cottages, an orchestral hall in a glass atrium and a veranda with a spectacular view of the water.

The Palace was started by Peter the Great but never finished. Putin hosted the G-8 leaders there and hoped it would serve as a center for international meetings and conferences. There were plans to turn an Arctic sailors college into a four star hotel A dacha once occupied by Mathilde Kschessinsk—a famous ballerina and mistress of Tsar Nicholas II—was slated to be turned into museum. By some estimates $200million was spent on the project.

Presidential Powers in Russia

Russia's president determines the basic direction of Russia's domestic and foreign policy and represents the Russian state within the country and in foreign affairs. The president appoints and recalls Russia's ambassadors upon consultation with the legislature, accepts the credentials and letters of recall of foreign representatives, conducts international talks, and signs international treaties. A special provision allowed Yeltsin to complete the term prescribed to end in June 1996 and to exercise the powers of the new constitution, although he had been elected under a different constitutional order. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1996 presidential election campaign, some candidates called for reducing or eliminating the presidency, criticizing its powers as dictatorial. Yeltsin defended his presidential powers, claiming that Russians desire "a vertical power structure and a strong hand" and that a parliamentary government would result in indecisive talk rather than action. *

Several prescribed powers put the president in a superior position vis-à-vis the legislature. The president has broad authority to issue decrees and directives that have the force of law without legislative review, although the constitution notes that they must not contravene that document or other laws. Under certain conditions, the president may dissolve the State Duma, the lower house of parliament (as a whole, now called the Federal Assembly). The president has the prerogatives of scheduling referendums (a power previously reserved to the parliament), submitting draft laws to the State Duma, and promulgating federal laws. *

The executive-legislative crisis of the fall of 1993 prompted Yeltsin to emplace constitutional obstacles to legislative removal of the president. Under the 1993 constitution, if the president commits "grave crimes" or treason, the State Duma may file impeachment charges with the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council. These charges must be confirmed by a ruling of the Supreme Court that the president's actions constitute a crime and by a ruling of the Constitutional Court that proper procedures in filing charges have been followed. The charges then must be adopted by a special commission of the State Duma and confirmed by at least two-thirds of State Duma deputies. A two-thirds vote of the Federation Council is required for removal of the president. If the Federation Council does not act within three months, the charges are dropped. If the president is removed from office or becomes unable to exercise power because of serious illness, the prime minister is to temporarily assume the president's duties; a presidential election then must be held within three months. The constitution does not provide for a vice president, and there is no specific procedure for determining whether the president is able to carry out his duties. *

The president is empowered to appoint the prime minister to chair the Government (called the cabinet or the council of ministers in other countries), with the consent of the State Duma. The president chairs meetings of the Government, which he also may dismiss in its entirety. Upon the advice of the prime minister, the president can appoint or remove Government members, including the deputy prime ministers. The president submits candidates to the State Duma for the post of chairman of the Russian Central Bank (RCB) and may propose that the State Duma dismiss the chairman. In addition, the president submits candidates to the Federation Council for appointment as justices of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Superior Court of Arbitration, as well as candidates for the office of procurator general, Russia's chief law enforcement officer. The president also appoints justices of federal district courts. *

Informal Powers and Power Centers of the Russian President

Many of the president's powers are related to the incumbent's undisputed leeway in forming an administration and hiring staff. The presidential administration is composed of several competing, overlapping, and vaguely delineated hierarchies that historically have resisted efforts at consolidation. In early 1996, Russian sources reported the size of the presidential apparatus in Moscow and the localities at more than 75,000 people, most of them employees of state-owned enterprises directly under presidential control. This structure is similar to, but several times larger than, the top-level apparatus of the Soviet-era Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Former first deputy prime minister Anatoliy Chubays was appointed chief of the presidential administration (chief of staff) in July 1996. Chubays replaced Nikolay Yegorov, a hard-line associate of deposed Presidential Security Service chief Aleksandr Korzhakov. Yegorov had been appointed in early 1996, when Yeltsin reacted to the strong showing of antireform factions in the legislative election by purging reformers from his administration. Yeltsin now ordered Chubays, who had been included in that purge, to reduce the size of the administration and the number of departments overseeing the functions of the ministerial apparatus. The six administrative departments in existence at that time dealt with citizens' rights, domestic and foreign policy, state and legal matters, personnel, analysis, and oversight, and Chubays inherited a staff estimated at 2,000 employees. Chubays also received control over a presidential advisory group with input on the economy, national security, and other matters. Reportedly that group had competed with Korzhakov's security service for influence in the Yeltsin administration. *

Another center of power in the presidential administration is the Security Council, which was created by statute in mid-1992. The 1993 constitution describes the council as formed and headed by the president and governed by statute. Since its formation, it apparently has gradually lost influence in competition with other power centers in the presidential administration. However, the June 1996 appointment of former army general and presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed' to head the Security Council improved prospects for the organization's standing. In July 1996, a presidential decree assigned the Security Council a wide variety of new missions. The decree's description of the Security Council's consultative functions was especially vague and wide-ranging, although it positioned the head of the Security Council directly subordinate to the president. As had been the case previously, the Security Council was required to hold meetings at least once a month. *

Other presidential support services include the Control Directorate (in charge of investigating official corruption), the Administrative Affairs Directorate, the Presidential Press Service, and the Protocol Directorate. The Administrative Affairs Directorate controls state dachas, sanatoriums, automobiles, office buildings, and other perquisites of high office for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, a function that includes management of more than 200 state industries with about 50,000 employees. The Committee on Operational Questions, until June 1996 chaired by antireformist Oleg Soskovets, has been described as a "government within a government." Also attached to the presidency are more than two dozen consultative commissions and extrabudgetary "funds." *

The president also has extensive powers over military policy. As the commander in chief of the armed forces, the president approves defense doctrine, appoints and removes the high command of the armed forces, and confers higher military ranks and awards. The president is empowered to declare national or regional states of martial law, as well as states of emergency. In both cases, both chambers of the parliament must be notified immediately. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, has the power to confirm or reject such a decree. The regime of martial law is defined by federal law. The circumstances and procedures for the president to declare a state of emergency are more specifically outlined in federal law than in the constitution. In practice, the Constitutional Court ruled in 1995 that the president has wide leeway in responding to crises within Russia, such as lawlessness in the separatist Republic of Chechnya, and that Yeltsin's action in Chechnya did not require a formal declaration of a state of emergency. In 1994 Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Ingushetia and North Ossetia, two republics beset by intermittent ethnic conflict. *

Russian Cabinet

The Russian "Government" (Cabinet) is composed of the premier (prime minister), his deputies, and ministers; all are appointed by the president, and the premier is also confirmed by the Duma. There is also a Presidential Administration (PA) that provides staff and policy support to the president, drafts presidential decrees, and coordinates policy among government agencies; a Security Council also reports directly to the president. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The constitution prescribes that the Government of Russia, which corresponds to the Western cabinet structure, consist of a prime minister (chairman of the Government), deputy prime ministers, and federal ministers and their ministries and departments. Within one week of appointment by the president and approval by the State Duma, the prime minister must submit to the president nominations for all subordinate Government positions, including deputy prime ministers and federal ministers. The prime minister carries out administration in line with the constitution and laws and presidential decrees. The ministries of the Government, which numbered twenty-four in mid-1996, execute credit and monetary policies and defense, foreign policy, and state security functions; ensure the rule of law and respect for human and civil rights; protect property; and take measures against crime. If the Government issues implementing decrees and directives that are at odds with legislation or presidential decrees, the president may rescind them. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Government formulates the state budget, submits it to the State Duma, and issues a report on its implementation. In late 1994, the parliament successfully demanded that the Government begin submitting quarterly reports on budget expenditures and adhere to other guidelines on budgetary matters, although the parliament's budgetary powers are limited. If the State Duma rejects a draft budget from the Government, the budget is submitted to a conciliation commission including members from both branches. *

Besides the ministries, in 1996 the executive branch included eleven state committees and forty-six state services and agencies, ranging from the State Space Agency (Glavkosmos) to the State Committee for Statistics (Goskomstat). There were also myriad agencies, boards, centers, councils, commissions, and committees. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's personal staff was reported to number about 2,000 in 1995.

Legislative Branch of Russia

The Russian Parliament—The Federal Assembly—is made of two houses: the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house, with deputies (representatives) elected to four year terms; and the 166-seat Federation Council, the upper house, made up of regional leaders. The Duma overseas economic matters. The Federation Council coordinates exchanges between the national government and the regional governments.

The legislature in Russia is weak. The President has almost all of the constitutional power. Although the General Assembly has the power to debate issues its power to influence decisions is questionable. For example, an attorney general nominated by Yeltsin was rejected by the Assembly three times but continued to keep his job in an acting capacity. According to the constitution, if the Duma votes three times against the president's choice for prime minister the Duma must be disbanded.

The Duma, is the more influential of the two houses. The name Duma was first used by the tsars to describe the lower house that was forced to disband in the closing days of tsarist Russia. The leader of the party with the most seats is called the People's Deputy leader.

In the 1990s, the Federation Council was made up of regional governors and heads of the regional legislatures of the 89 subnational jurisdictions into which Russia is divided. In 2000 Putin increased his control of the Federation Council by introducing legislation to change the composition of the upper house from local elected officials to legislators appointed by Moscow. The Federation Council is as you would expect is generally compliant to the wishes of the Russian leadership. Its member are appointed by regional council. It has little involvement in policy making and generally approves what ever is given to it by the Kremlin.

Legislative branch description: bicameral Federal Assembly or Federalnoye Sobraniye consists of the Federation Council or Sovet Federatsii (166 seats; 2 members in each of the 83 federal administrative units - oblasts, krays, republics, autonomous okrugs and oblasts, and the federal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg - appointed by the top executive and legislative officials; members serve 4-year terms) and the State Duma or Gosudarstvennaya Duma (450 seats; as of February 2014, the electoral system reverted to a mixed electoral system for the 2016 election in which one-half of the members are directly elected by simple majority vote and one-half directly elected by proportional representation vote; members serve 5-year terms). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

See Separate Article on KREMLIN AND LEGISLATURE OF RUSSIA

Judicial Branch in Russia

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. His main tool is his de facto right to appoint judges. All members of Russia's highest courts are nominated by the president and appointed by the Federation Council (the upper house of the legislature). Members of all courts appointed for life. Many members of the Federation Council have been picked by the Kremlin and are loyal to Putin.

The judicial branch has moved very slowly toward an independent role in the post-Soviet era. The federal judicial institutions are the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. Judges of those courts serve lifetime terms. All federal judges are appointed by the Federation Council on the recommendation of the president. The 19- member Constitutional Court passes judgments on compliance with federal law and the constitution and settles jurisdictional disputes between state bodies. The 23-member Supreme Court rules on matters of civil, criminal, and administrative law. It is the final stage of the appeals system, which begins with local courts of general jurisdiction and includes district and regional courts. There was a Superior Court for Arbitration for settling commercial disputes but that was abolished. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Highest court(s): Supreme Court of the Russian Federation (consists of 170 members organized into the Judicial Panel for Civil Affairs, the Judicial Panel for Criminal Affairs, and the Military Panel); Constitutional Court (consists of 19 members). In February 2014, Russia’s Superior Court of Arbitration was abolished and its former authorities transferred to the Supreme Court, which in addition to being the country’s highest judicial authority for appeals, civil, criminal, administrative cases, and military cases, and the disciplinary judicial board, now has jurisdiction over economic disputes. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Subordinate courts: Higher Arbitration Court; regional (kray) and provincial (oblast) courts; Moscow and St. Petersburg city courts; autonomous province and district courts. Fourteen Russian Republics have court systems specified by their own constitutions. =

See Separate Article on JUSTICE SYSTEM OF RUSSIA

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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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