Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

December 18, 2001
Why did he refuse to extend his presidential term?
Putin Chose a European Model of Development for Russia
By Leonid Radzihovsky

A notion like presidential term may seem to be a formal constitutional clause which can be changed in a "working order". The duration of presidential stay in power varies from four years in some countries, including Russia, to five and even seven, like in France, to which it has become particularly fashionable to refer to in recent years.

However, two fundamentally different aspects should be distinguished here. The Constitution may establish the duration of presidential term once and for all. Then, it is really unimportant whether it is four years or five. But an attempt to extend the existing presidential term clearly implicates something more than just a formal revision of the fundamental law. Putin perfectly realized the danger of such initiatives and crushed the idea in the bud on Constitution Day on December 12. The Russian elite was taught a tough lesson in political culture. Let's imagine what would have happened if Putin had kept silent. The supporters of this initiative would have cheerfully started a campaign in its favor. The idea would have attracted new supporters in the face of the Federation Council, the State Duma and regional governors. The consequences of that "PR-campaign" would have been felt both in regions and the federal center.

The consequences would have been more apparent in the regions. Regional governors would have shown more than a Platonic love for the idea to extend the president's stay in office. It is clear that they would have tried to apply it to themselves in the first place. If the president has decided to extend his term and we have helped him in achieving that, then what can prevent us from doing the same at our own gubernatorial level. Furthermore, most regional bosses believe that the president simply must support them, especially in the name of a common and sacred goal to strengthen stability in this country. In that case Russia would have got 88 regional leaders, excluding Chechnya, each of whom, as Ligachyov once said, "is devilishly willing to work" for another seven or fourteen years (two extended terms at least) or even more than that.

Extending one term would mean that other terms can also be prolonged. It is clear that governors will take fresh heart and will, with pleasure, break any power vertical in their time. "If I sit firmly in my post and live at state expense for another 10 years or so, who are all the ministers to me then. Today he is a minister, and tomorrow he is nothing!," any Russian regional boss would ask. In other words, Russia would have gotten a slightly modified version of the old regional formula: "Sit for as long as you can last!" Constitutional consequences could have been even graver.

There are plenty of differences making a democratic system democratic. What are they? First of all, this is an entire system and a full package of political, economic and civil liberties, which, in fact, are clearly fixed in the current Russian Constitution which some want to revise: private ownership, freedom of speech, openness to the outside world, free parliamentary elections, human rights, etc. A firmly guaranteed replacement of the head of state and his clearly defined appointment by election are one of the major classical democratic principles. Very few lifetime rulers have left in contemporary world, predominantly in countries which no one will have the cheek to call democratic. But, removing just one stone, like the president's replacement, from the foundation of a democratic state will make the entire structure reel. The "Central Asian democracies" have made it clear that lifetime rule is incompatible with political freedom without which all other dice in a domino, like private ownership, civil liberties, etc, will start falling apart. But what does that have to do with an issue in question? Has anyone ever mentioned the possibility of abolishing presidential elections in Russia? Nevertheless, it immediately concerns each and all of us. Unlike in France, where presidents have been replacing each other for nearly 130 years, Russia saw its first peaceful and legitimate change of the head of state only in 2000.

President Putin did not rise to power in succession of a dead leader (all Russian czars and Communist Party general secretaries), nor did that happen as a result of a plot (Khrushchev) or the country's disintegration (Gorbachev). A tradition to legitimately replace its first leaders is still very weak in Russia, while the idea of lifetime rule is deeply rooted in public consciousness. President Putin has chosen a European and pro-Western model for Russia. He has learned the historical experience and has disavowed the idea of revising the Russian Constitution.

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