Presidentialism, Even More than Putin, is Russia’s Curse, Golosov Says

Putin Descending a Staircase

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, October 12, 2017)

The real threat to Russia’s future development, Grigory Golosov argues, lies not in the various repressive actions Vladimir Putin has taken but in the presidential system enshrined in the Russian Constitution which makes “any strong president” into “a potential Putin.”

Writing in the Takiye Dela portal today, the St. Petersburg European University political scientist says that under the existing constitutional arrangements, any such president “can not only concentrate all power into his own hands but then hold onto it as long as he wants.” If Russia is to be a democracy, this must be changed (takiedela.ru/2017/10/takaya-rossiyavlast/).

Many Russians find it difficult to imagine that until 1990, their country had no president. Only in March of that year did Mikhail Gorbachev create and assume the position of Russian president to protect himself against being ousted by CPSU leaders in much the same way Nikita Khrushchev had been in 1964, Golosov says.

But even having become president, Gorbachev ruled over a country that maintained “a fictional parliamentary system with a party core,” and as a result, his power “hung in the air.” Then in August 1991, the party leadership tried to take power but failed. And after that, Gorbachev lost “both stools,” the presidency and the party leadership.

Boris Yeltsin’s trajectory as president was rather different, Golosov says. He first had himself elected president of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet and only in June 1991 did he become “the first elected president of Russia.” But despite that, significant changes of Russian political institutions did not immediately follow.

“Formally,” Golosov says, “power as before belonged to the soviets and the authority of Yeltsin was primarily ceremonial. In this regard, the differences between the statuses of Gorbachev and Yeltsin were almost nonexistent.” But the political situation was different, and thus their real status was completely so.

“Gorbachev didn’t need broad governmental authority, but Yeltsin did,” the political scientist says. The latter’s victory in August 1991 allowed him to “concentrate in his hands enormous power.” Moreover, “from November 1991 through June 1992, Yeltsin combined the presidency with the post of head of government of Russia.”

Then the conflicts between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet only grew, leading to “a miniature civil war in October 1993,” a conflict Yeltsin won. As a result, he was in a position “to dictate any constitution and to take for himself as much authority as he wanted,” Golosov continues.

There were only two limiting factors: Western public opinion which didn’t want to see a dictatorship established, and Yeltsin’s own lack of interest in domestic affairs. The Russian constitution that emerged thus did not fulfill the main task of such documents: “It did not define the authority of state institutions in a clear and exhaustive manner.”

Indeed, it made the situation worse by declaring the president “the guarantor of the Constitution” without specifying what that meant and thus opened the way to a situation in which “the president could use practically unlimited power” and override the legal government in anything it did.

“The 1993 Constitution wasn’t written for Vladimir Putin,” Golosov says; “but he found a way to use it in his own interests.” Semi-presidential systems of the kind Russian had under Yeltsin tend toward instability, a danger that Putin ended by moving in ways so that by the early 2000s, “Russia has ceased to be an electoral democracy” and headed toward authoritarianism.

Semi-presidential systems give an active leader like Putin an additional “bonus,” the analyst says. “If the president for some reason must leave his post, he can preserve almost all the opportunities for influence by becoming head of government.” That happened in 2008-2011 and it could happen again after 2024.

And in addition, such systems only encourage a leader to blame all problems on the government and to engage in the kind of foreign policy adventurism that can win him support at home, Golosov says.

There are various ways this situation can be fixed, he argues. Rewriting the constitution and defining the powers of particular positions and institutions is one way, something that could lead to the establishment of a parliamentary system with a figurehead president or that could keep the president as in France strong in certain areas but not in others.

But it is essential that the president not remain “‘the guarantor of the Constitution.’ In a normal political system, he is only an official of high rank.” And the prime minister in such a mixed system should be removed only if he loses his parliamentary majority not if the president wants that to happen.

At the very least, Russians should be discussing how to move toward a more defined system without waiting for some dramatic breakthrough to a Constitutional convention. Otherwise the future of the country is bleak even after Putin eventually passes from the scene.

[Article also appeared at windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/10/presidentialism-even-more-than-putin-is.html]