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  • What Went Wrong in Russia?Controlling The Military-A Partial Success
  • Zoltan Barany (bio)

Since the birth of the new Russia, political elites have not succeeded in bringing the country’s military establishment under their control. The president, the legislature, and political parties and movements of different hues have attempted to coax the military into an active political role. In the meantime, the passive political involvement of the conventional armed services and the dozen or more armed forces of agencies other than the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has increased precipitously. Even so, the Russian military remains a large, uncontrolled, unreformed, and improbably poor institution responsible for guarding approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads. In many respects, this scenario is a textbook case for a military coup.

Throughout the post-Soviet period, politicians and experts, both in Russia and abroad, have repeatedly speculated about the military’s impending entry into power politics. Nonetheless, the armed forces have stayed in their barracks, as placid amidst the political and economic turmoil as the long-suffering population at large. My purpose is to explain both the plausibility of the gloomy observers’ speculations on the one hand, and the equally sensible reasons why their predicted outcome has failed to materialize.

One of the key objectives of democratization is to bring the armed forces under institutionally balanced, constitutionally regulated, and nonpartisan civilian control.1 In democracies, civilian supervision of the military has several indispensable elements: 1) The armed forces must be subordinated to institutionalized civilian control, balanced between the executive and legislative branches; 2) the military chain of [End Page 54] command and the political institutions’ areas of responsibility must be codified for all potential scenarios (peacetime, emergencies, war); 3) the conditions that warrant use of the military in peacetime must be constitutionally regulated; 4) the executive and legislative branches must share fiscal responsibility over defense expenditures; 5) the military must be depoliticized and its members must not be permitted to play any political role beyond exercising their right to vote; 6) the military establishment itself must be democratized; and 7) civilian experts must be trained to provide objective advice to politicians on defense-related issues and to staff pertinent state institutions, including the ministry of defense. In Latin America, where generals had been the de facto rulers of the state, democratization required the de-militarization of politics. In Russia and Eastern Europe, where the military had been an institutional servant of the Communist Party, the critical goal has been the depoliticization of the military.2

Presidential Prerogatives

In Russia, this goal has not been realized. The military has been “departified” but not depoliticized. The vacuum created by the end of Communist Party domination of the armed forces has not been filled by balanced and stable civilian control. Instead, the process of establishing institutionalized civilian oversight took the form of a protracted power struggle between the executive and legislative branches, culminating in President Boris Yeltsin’s triumph in late 1993. The resulting system of civilian control is neither balanced nor effective; it is a personalistic and unregulated arrangement based on Yeltsin’s ability to play institutions and individuals off against one another.

Yeltsin has gradually increased his power over the armed forces through a relentless confrontation with the legislature and by repeatedly breaking the law. Although the September 1992 Defense Law required the president to obtain parliamentary consent for top military appointments, Yeltsin did not abide by this rule. The constitution in force at the time clearly denied the president the right to dissolve parliament, yet Yeltsin did precisely that on 21 September 1993, drawing the irresolute armed forces into the affair. The subsequent showdown, which caused over 100 deaths, led to a further expansion of presidential powers. Under the new 1993 Constitution, the Duma (the lower house of the Russian legislature) lost its role in the appointment of military leaders. A January 1994 presidential decree subordinated all “force organs”—a term which includes the MoD, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Federal Security Service, and the Government Communications and Information Agency—to Yeltsin. Yet even these broad increases in presidential power were not enough for Yeltsin, who violated the [End Page...

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