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Moscow Times
October 4, 2004
The Return of Paternalism
By Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Last week President Vladimir Putin's plan for authoritarian government reform began to take shape. The bill that the Kremlin submitted to the State Duma went further than even the president's original proposals. When Boris Yeltsin similarly announced his intention to introduce special measures for running the country in the spring of 1993, he was forced to back down. After gauging the muted reaction from the public and the political elite, Putin upped the ante.

The apparent indifference to Putin's plan owes in large part to the absence of outlets for the expression of popular opinion. As a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center showed, a majority of Russians oppose the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections -- a remarkable fact given the regime's concerted efforts to undermine the public's faith in elections as an institution.

In essence, the Kremlin's bill would introduce presidential rule. The "election" of regional leaders would in fact amount to little more than the confirmation of the Kremlin's candidates. What's more, the president could appoint regional leaders even without the consent of regional legislatures. If lawmakers reject the president's candidate more than once, he could appoint an acting governor, disband the legislature, or both. Similarly, the Federation Council's power to appoint the prosecutor general in the Yelstin era was in practice little more than a formality.

This begs the question: Why does the much-ballyhooed consolidation of the executive branch require the total subjugation of representative government?

The plan itself was not made public, but the Kremlin went to great pains to smooth its passage with an impressive PR blitz. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of presidential administration, made a rare appearance in front of the cameras at a Kremlin news conference. He also stumped for the bill in a lengthy interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov published an extensive article in Izvestia. And Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov steered a bill through the upper house that puts the finishing touches on the Kremlin's control of the judiciary.

Administration officials now speak of "weak, cookie-cutter political parties" and "faux liberals" who despise their motherland. In their scorn for legislators at all levels and for the expression of popular will, they are merely following Putin's lead. Instead of questioning their own ability to conduct democratic elections, they cast doubt on the public's ability to choose its leaders.

Surkov's argument that canceling single-mandate elections to the Duma would resurrect political opposition is pure demagoguery -- as if the Kremlin were concerned about fostering an opposition. Under the existing laws on elections and political parties, the Kremlin already has the power -- through its control of the courts, prosecutors and the Central Elections Commission -- to bar any party from contesting an election, including the four parties now represented in the Duma. The Kremlin now proposes to serve up dishes to suit every taste -- from its own kitchen.

Much of what the Kremlin has proposed is already underway. Putin's envoys to the federal districts already select candidates in gubernatorial elections, and many governors have signed up for membership in United Russia. Regional leaders' discontent occasionally rises to the surface, and an active debate continues in the press. In terms reminiscent of the bad old days, Surkov has labeled those who disagree with the president "a fifth column of left- and right-wing radicals in a besieged country."

For all intents and purposes, the Kremlin is turning citizens into subjects, robbing them of the right both to form their government and to express their opinions about that government in any form other than offering humble thanks to the president. By weakening democratic institutions and undermining the basis of self-rule, the Kremlin has actively inculcated paternalism in Russian society, even resurrecting the Soviet system of "citizens' appeals."

The presidential web site proudly reports that during Putin's first term the number of appeals sent to federal and regional agencies within the executive branch nearly tripled, totaling more than 3 million last year. Some 800,000 appeals were addressed to Putin personally.

Under the guise of strengthening the state, the Kremlin is weakening it by putting all of Russia's eggs in one basket. Putin is constructing a system in which everything goes through him. Without the president and his high popularity rating, this system cannot exist.