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From: "Peter Lavelle" <plavelle@metropol.ru>
Subject: Untimely Thoughts
Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2001

Peter Lavelle: Untimely Thoughts -

How much of Putin is a good thing for Russia?
(re Constitution Day and presidential terms)

Tomorrow is Russia's Constitution Day - though this had to be checked and rechecked by some of my employees, just to make sure. However, all agreed that Wednesday in not a working day. Russia's Constitution is young, thus memories still short - civic practices take time to take root. Many Russians are not aware of what the national holiday commemorates, though the newly elected Federation Council Speaker - Sergei Mironov - is certainly not among them.

Mironov shows no signs he intends to slowly grow into his new position. He has already found a new mission for a body that seemingly is without a mission. His mind is very much on the Constitution - and how to amend it. Mironov is of the opinion that the present presidential term of four years is too short and should be lengthened. In a short article published in Kommersant, one could easily gather that Mironov could find himself in hot water with Putin for airing this opinion. Kommersant's comment is odd - there has been talk of changing the Constitution for some time. The proposal to lengthen the president's term has been mentioned by many across the political spectrum over the past year. The only difference in this case is that Mironov can actually do something to make this happen.

The Moscow Times, in an article today titled "Constitution's Strength Is in Immutability", is of the opinion that lengthening the presidential term is "Lurching in this direction will bring Russia closer to Kazakh and Belarussian practice, and take it much further away from the Western democratic norms...". This is an exaggeration. Constitutions change, some very often - even in the west. Even the US Constitution was changed in respect to presidential terms - a constitutional change that was politically motivated. Constitutions are, after all, a guide and a reflection of a political order. Russia's current political order is clearly evolving; changes to the Constitution may be necessary.

Is the lengthening the presidential term to five or seven years a good idea for Russia? Before I express my thoughts on this, a SWOT analysis of this proposition may be helpful. Also, it needs to be kept in mind that amending the Constitution before the next presidential election may allow Putin the "start all over again". Thus, in theory, if Putin so desired, he could be President of the Russian Federation for fourteen years or even, as some claim, nineteen years.

Strengths: Lengthening the presidential term would allow Putin to see his reforms come to fruition. Even eight years is not enough to push through meaningful banking and military reform, to cite just two examples. Russia's political parties remain immature and without large constituencies focused on discernable political agendas. The next decade is critical for Russia to reform and restructure itself in a fast-moving international environment. Having Putin at the helm for longer than eight years would guarantee Russia stays the course.

Weaknesses: Foreknowledge that his administration could last into the middle of the next decade could engender presidential complacency. Political and economic imperatives could be put off. Serving for up to fourteen years may retard the development of a new and alternative political elite. The Kremlin always has the advantage at the polls and new leaders my find "high politics" an impossible goal to attain. The importance of politics will lessen and cronyism (around Putin) encouraged.

Opportunities: Putin would have the chance to radically change Russian political culture. Rooting out corruption and promotion of merit could be strongly embedded in political life and the economy. Putin could allow the civil society project to finally pick up momentum. Putin could become its "roof" and protector. He could become the "little father" for those the political process in the Duma leaves out as reforms progress.

Threats: The democratic process comes to a halt and presidential rule - virtual power structures - becomes the norm. Politics remain within the purview of the bureaucracy, civil society and small and medium sized businesses derived of any form of agency. Democracy is not learned, but acted out in a way dictated by the Kremlin. Putin could represent the past with only a more humane face.

Granted, I have only touched in few issues for each category. However, the positives and negatives of Mironov's idea are apparent. Given the enormity of Russia's reform project, someone like Putin would clearly like to have more time to see his vision through. On the other hand, when is Russia to learn about democracy, checks and balances, the rule of law, and the very process of politics itself? At this stage of Russia's development some of these points seem a bit mute for many Russians, I would agree. But if Russians can't remember what December 12 stands for a decade from now not only will have Putin's reforms failed, but also democracy itself will not be doubt - it will have failed as well. The Russian Constitution is important, but it also should be deemed as a living document. Russia has changed a lot since 1991 and will continue to change a lot for the time to come.

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