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#18 - JRL 7230
Argumenty i Fakty
June 18, 2003
The president serves to stabilize the system in Russia
Author: Andrei Uglanov, Sergei Mikhailov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]


Russia stands on the threshold of changes in the political order of society. The time is ripe for this issue, as evidenced by discussion of the need for administrative reforms. So far, they have gone nowhere; not surprisingly, since the discussion is limited to "reprogramming" the bureaucracy. But reforms ought to have a goal extending beyond that framework.

It appears that such a goal is gleaming in the distance, at least for those who hold the real levers of power in Russia. Thus, over the next four to seven years we are likely to witness the restructuring of all branches of government.

Over the past decade, Russia's state economy has been subjected to rapid distribution. All its fundamental sectors are now owned either by individuals or groups of individuals. Most of them are those who are the richest and most influential; they are firm friends with the regime and support it. Their lobbyists are present at the very top of both the legislative and executive pyramids.

Only some political guarantees are needed to conclusively entrench this position. There are two problems arousing the most concern among the business elite. First: Russian voters often vote with their hearts, and here lies their unpredictability. Hence the second problem: a presidential candidate backed by the financial- industrial groups could well lose an election to a politician who is given a "credit of confidence" by the people. And there's no way of telling what such a politician may have in mind.

It should be noted that the business elite has been somewhat at a loss over the past three years. The pillars of the oligarchy, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, were dealt with; then the "equidistance" of the other oligarchs was proclaimed. Neither did wariness abate once some of the newly-equidistanced oligarchs turned out to be more equal than others. There is also President Putin's unclear position on rent for the extraction of natural resources. The absence of rent payment requirements is precisely what makes the natural resources companies fabulously wealthy, while leaving the citizens of a major oil-producing nation extremely poor. Moreover, no one is giving any full guarantees against the prospect of credit auction results being revised; in those auctions, individuals essentially used state money to snap up the tastiest morsels of state property. Putin is not raising any of these issues. But what might the next president do?


Therefore, the task of the moment - to quote the Bolsheviks - is to do away with uncertainty. And there is only one way to do it: switching from a popularly-elected president to a president elected by the parliament. For the oligarchs, ensuring that their own people (or controllable people) get elected to parliament would be simpler, cheaper, and more reliable than trying to get the right president elected by the masses. Meanwhile, the government could be formed by the parliamentary majority rather than by presidential decrees as it is now.

We have almost got to the point of forming the Cabinet by this method (refer to this year's presidential address); all that remains is to amend the constitutional law on the government. Indeed, where's the harm in having those political parties which win the parliamentary elections form the government? It's a reliable mechanism, tested in many other countries. The matter of electing the president is more complicated; it would require amending the Constitution. However, anything is possible, depending on how this "pill" is presented to voters.

An easily-digestible and even attractive explanation will be found. Right through to 2008, specialists can discuss the advantages of having the president elected by the Federal Assembly. Prominent figures in culture, academia, and business will manage to convince everyone within a few years. This kind of thing has happened before.


It's hard to label this trend as either good or bad. It hasn't appeared out of nowhere, after all. At first glance, it seems that in this way, stability in Russia and political security for the financial groups would be ensured; so we would avoid any upheavals. But for how long?

First: Would Russia's political parties be capable of forming a government based on the expectations of voters - in other words, would they vote according to conscience? No; they would probably vote "according to understandings". All Russia's parties are vague in nature; and especially vague about their funding sources. The level of general cynicism has reached the point of money-bags openly and shamelessly naming the parties they are funding; and the party bosses don't even think about denying it. What's more, this applies to all parties. It follows that the government would be formed by those who pay the money. In other words, nothing would change.

Second: Amending the law on the government and the Constitution seems simple, but that's probably an illusion. Nothing goes smoothly in Russia; there are no examples to the contrary. And no one knows where this might lead. It could lead to terrible things.

Third: Although the major financial-industrial groups are very influential and capable of doing a great deal, there is no guarantee that they can keep the nation completely under control. Should a "new Yeltsin" arise - someone who denounces the oligarchs - events could take a revolutionary turn.

Fourth: Perhaps the most important point. The last chance to save the Soviet Union from falling apart was to have a leader directly elected by the people. Mikhail Gorbachev feared to try this, and completely lost the battle to Boris Yeltsin, who decided to go ahead with it. A leader elected by 2,000 votes at a congress could not rely on the people's support. Neither did he have the full moral authority to put out the political fires which had started burning across the territory of the Soviet empire. Russia - also a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country - has endured for 13 years. Held together by presidential rule, it is slowly extracting itself from the swamp of separatism. We are becoming more confident that Russia will not fall apart as the Soviet Union did. So this vast territory needs a tsar; or, in our time, a president elected by the people. The president serves to stabilize the system. Depriving him of popular legitimacy would return us to the end of the Soviet Union. Do we want that to happen?


The German model: For Russia's political and economic elite, this model is the most familiar. The president mainly represents the state in the international arena. He is elected for a five-year term by the Bundestag and representatives of Germany's regions, elected by their parliaments. The prime minister - the federal chancellor - is the leader of the majority party in the Bundestag. The chancellor forms the cabinet. President Putin, who has a certain weakness for Germany, is very familiar with this political model. He understands it. But it's not the only model out there.

The American model: The president holds full executive power. The president and vice-president are elected by the electors of each state. These, in turn, are elected by voters via party lists. The system has grown somewhat obsolete, as evidenced by the Florida election results, which left it unclear whether George W. Bush or his rival Al Gore had really been elected president.

Cabinet members in the United States are appointed by the president, who also nominates the heads of federal agencies, with the Senate's approval. If Russia switched to the American model, we would also be able to avoid widespread and harmful duplication of management functions. However, the president would only be the head of the executive branch. He would lose the role of arbiter in the system of governance.

Meanwhile, we are left watching the debate over administrative reforms. Unless a new model is adopted for Russia's political system, or the old model is strengthened, the matter will never proceed beyond talk.

(Translated by P. Pikhnovsky)

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