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  • The Problem of Executive Power in Russia
  • Lilia Shevtsova (bio)

As Alexis de Tocqueville’s discussion of the American presidency reminds us, incorporating the executive power within an effective system of checks and balances is critical for the successful operation of democratic government. The dangers of allowing too much authority to the executive are visible in many third-wave democracies, but in none more so than in Russia. In fact, the Russian president today possesses powers that in many ways are closer to those of France’s constitutional monarch in Tocqueville’s era than to those of an American president. And the consequences of this undue concentration of power have gravely damaged Russia’s democratic prospects.

Russia’s superpresidential regime was formed in December 1993 after President Boris Yeltsin had forcibly dissolved the Russian Supreme Soviet, closing a chapter in the history of the new post-communist state that had been characterized by an all-out battle between the executive and the legislature. As the victor, Yeltsin got the chance to build a new structure of government without having to compromise with other political actors. He exploited this opportunity to create his own “presidential pyramid” (or vertikal, a term his advisors use to describe a system of strong executive power supported by presidential appointments of loyal supporters to leading positions at all levels and frequent resort to presidential decree). In forming the [End Page 32] new regime, Russia’s ruling group drew upon the models of the American and French presidencies (it was especially impressed by General de Gaulle and the French Fifth Republic). But what Russian political “engineers” took from Western experience was the external attributes of liberal democracy and the mechanisms guaranteeing strong presidential power; mechanisms creating checks and balances to the presidency were deliberately weakened or simply rejected. The American founding fathers thought that steps must be taken to rein in ambition through a system of institutional restraints, but the founders of the Russian government in 1993 proceeded from the opposite principle, making the “Leader-Arbiter” the core of the new Russian regime. The most important component of France’s Fifth Republic was a more ordered party system and the formation of stable party coalitions supporting the president, 1 but the architects of the Russian presidency ignored the need to anchor it in the support of parties and of parliament.

It is virtually impossible to remove the Russian president from office. (According to the impeachment procedure established in Article 92 of the Russian Constitution, two-thirds of the State Duma must vote to charge him with treason or some other grave crime. These charges must be validated by the Supreme and Constitutional Courts. Then, two-thirds of the Federation Council must vote to remove him within three months of the filing of the charges.) Yet the president may dissolve the Duma if it rejects his candidate for prime minister three times or passes a no-confidence vote twice in three months. Yeltsin has actively used the threat of dissolution to force the deputies to submit to his will by approving his budget, confirming his latest choice for premier, and the like. Russia also lacks a strong judiciary able to restrain the president’s authoritarian inclinations or to curb the corruption of his entourage; the leaders of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts have been chosen from among those personally loyal to Yeltsin. In short, the Russian president has powers reminiscent of those of the French monarch in Tocqueville’s time.

Within the Russian executive branch there is no clear division of powers between the president and the government; the prime minister and his cabinet are completely dependent on the president. Yeltsin has shown that he can change prime ministers (he did so five times between March 1998 and August 1999) without any explanation or consideration of the balance of political forces, thereby devaluing the post of prime minister and turning the government itself into little more than a puppet. Although the cabinet’s lack of independence permits the president to have a decisive influence on all current policy, it also leaves the president responsible for all of the cabinet’s mistakes. The fact that the government does not...