Politics in russia

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Political change in Russia during the last decade can be characterized as a struggle to establish democratic institutions in a country with an inheritance of authoritarianism. The transition to democracy has not yielded effective governance, economic progress, or popular satisfaction. It is insecure and incomplete. In fact, current President Vladimir Putin has resorted to authoritarian tactics in his effort to control renegade local officials, the rebel Chechnya Republic, and the oligarchs.

The Tsarist Regime was characterized by autocracy, patrimonialism, and orthodoxy exacerbated by inefficiency and ineffectiveness. The empire came to an end in 1917 with the Russian Revolution led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The Bolsheviks, later named the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), promised to institute Marxist-Leninism in a new socialist state. Under a succession of leaders--Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Breznev, Andropov, and Chernenko, the country became increasingly characterized by centralization of authority. The system allowed for no 'feedback' that could have corrected or ameliorated problems and it eventually became dysfunctional. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the CPSU in 1985, the political system of the USSR had grown top-heavy, unresponsive, and muscle bound. Reasons given for the system's failure include: (1) overcentralization, (2) failure of the economic system, (3) political rigidities and corruption, (4) lack of systematic provision for transfer of power, and (5) lack of transparency. When Mikhail Gorbachev called for glasnost, other democratic reforms, and perestroika, the people of Russia expected a law governed state, pragmatic economic changes, modernization and change to a democratic, socialist system. What they got was rapid change. In 1989, the countries of Eastern Europe experienced popular revolution, Germany was reunited and the Baltic states seceded from the union. While Gorbachev permitted people to voice their discontent without persecution, he failed to create democratic institutions that were willing to address their wants and demands, which weakened the regime’s legitimacy. Gorbachev's reforms had consequences he clearly did not intend and when he was not seen to be sufficiently radical, Boris Yeltsin called for even more rapid economic and political transformation.

Under Gorbachev, a new office of president of the USSR was established in 1990, chosen by the Soviet Union’s Congress of People’s Deputies that selected Gorbachev as President. In December 1991, the USSR itself collapsed, and all 15 of its constituent republics became independent states and formed a confederal alliance known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By then Boris Yeltsin had established a state presidency in the largest of the Soviet republics, Russia, where he was elected president in June 1991 by direct popular vote. As President, Yeltsin demanded that the legislature, the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, grant him extraordinary powers to carry out a program of radical market-oriented economic reform (shock therapy implemented by Prime Minister Gaidar). Unfortunately, these reforms were not successful, and led to sever economic dislocations. Conflict between Yeltsin and the legislature grew so intense that in 1993 Yeltsin dissolved the Communist dominated legislature by force and issued a referendum that created a new Russian Constitution, which passed. The 1993 Constitution gives the president wide-ranging powers, including the power to issue decrees equivalent to law, to appoint and remove the prime minister (PM), dissolving parliament if they reject his third choice for PM, and he directly presides and controls the agenda of the four power ministries (Defense, Federal Security Bureau, Interior, Foreign). Since then President Yeltsin's relations with the new legislature (the bicameral Federal Assembly) was often difficult (impeachment proceedings were initiated over his actions in Chechnya), but were eventually resolved by peaceful means.

The election of the President is based on the French model with a two-ballot system. If voter turnout is over 50% and a candidate receives over 50% on the first ballot, then that candidate becomes President. If no candidate receives a majority, than the top two candidates face each other in a run-off election. Interestingly, the 1993 Constitution eliminated the position of Vice President, thus providing that the prime minister be the first in line of succession to the presidency. In fact, Putin ascended to the Presidency when Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999 and then he won the first ballot election for President in March 2000 and again in 2004. In the 2000 elections, people questioned the legitimacy of votes that came from Chechnya supporting Putin and in 2004, questionable tactics to pressure college students and workers to vote were used to ensure that the 50% voter turn-out threshold would be met.

Yeltsin’s 1993 Constitution created a semi-presidential system which is a unique combination of United States, French, and Russian governmental arrangements. The Federal Assembly has a bicameral parliament: the State Duma, the lower house which was elected in 2004 on the basis of popular representation (225 Single member districts and 225 Proportional Representation seats determined by party lists with a 5% threshold) and the Federation Council (FC), the upper house which consists of two representatives from each of the 89 regions. President Putin recently changed the make-up of the FC by having the local elected leaders appoint representatives to the FC, rather than having local leaders serve in the FC part-time. The government has nearly sixty ministries led by a prime minister. One of the major problems has been the lack of development and institutionalization of a ‘law-governed’ state. The constitution provides for judicial review by a Constitutional Court whose members are nominated by the president and subject to confirmation by the Federation Council. Important problems remain in presidential-legislative relationships, questions regarding the degree of centralization and federalism, corruption in local government, and use of the military in places such as Chechnya.

Through time, over two revolutions and two major wars, the political culture of Russia has been characterized by a gulf between state and society. There has been a contradiction in that there has been a belief in democratic values yet consistent dissatisfaction with democratic structures and low levels of confidence in political institutions. Russians tend to place a high value on democracy, but have low levels of confidence in the present regime. However, Putin’s public opinion approval continues to grow despite his attacks on civil liberties, efforts to marginalize the oligarchs (Gusinsky, Berezovsky, and Khodorkovsky), and strong-arm tactics in Chechnya, exemplifying that Russians are more concerned about stability than democracy. The most important factors include generational change, rising educational levels, urbanization and industrialization, and resurgent nationalism. There is a high level of public frustration, which generally accompanies high levels of expectations.

Political recruitment for the old Soviet regime stressed appearances of collective involvement. However, participation was largely symbolic and formal. Real participation was a potential threat. Voting levels were high but as races were uncontested, they gave the appearance of mass support while maintaining party control. Recently, mass participation seems to ebb and flow with popular frustration and generally reflects support for the democratic system but dissatisfaction with policy. Strikes and protests continue. Recruitment within the bureaucracy exemplifies an elitist institution, which in some ways is an adaptation of the former nomenklatura (political recruitment within the Soviet Union that was regulated and controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

Interest groups formed around labor, professional unions, youth and student groups, women and veterans. Since 1991, there has been a perceptible change from statist to pluralist interest group formation. These may represent economic interests, criminal groups, business groups, or regional organizations. There is a potential for the development of corporatist institutions.

Political parties may be based on specific interest group organization and objectives. They may represent single interest, occupational groups or be ideological in focus. Freer elections have been a stimulus to political party organization as they represent the possibility of legislation on specific issues. The voting system is a combination of single member districts and candidates nominated on party lists. The political families or factions generally breakdown into parties of opposition, centrists and reformers. The opposition parties consist of communist and nationalist parties. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) led by Ziuganov has seen its support diminish after initially controlling a plurality of seats in the State Duma in the 1990s. Likewise, the Liberal Democratic Party (extreme nationalists) led by Zhirinovsky (the Le Pen of Russia) was at one time considered a threat to Yeltsin, but was unable to garner enough support to challenge Putin for the presidency. On the other end of the spectrum, reformist parties such as Yabloko and Russia’s Choice has received fewer and fewer seats in the legislature due to the disillusionment of economic reforms that benefited the oligarchs and Yeltsin’s family.

There are numerous political parties that exist at the local and national level, which spurred Putin to introduce political party reform. Currently, parties must be registered, which requires membership of at least 10,000 members and functioning party branches in a majority of the 89 regions of Russia. Major parties include: Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Agrarian, Russia's Democratic Choice, Women of Russia (which has also lost tremendous support), and the New Regional Party. More recently, the Unity Party was created and later joined with All Fatherland Russia creating the United Russia Party to bolster support for Putin’s policies in the State Duma. After the 2003 parliamentary elections, the United Russia Party secured a majority of seats in the Duma, which dramatically strengthened the power of Putin. Interestingly, neither President Yeltsin or Putin affiliated themselves with any one political party, however, the United Russia Party is loyal to Putin.

Elections are referendums on the system rather than choices between alternative party platforms. Due to economic uncertainty caused by the transition from a command to a market economy, interest groups representing civil servants and other laborers have taken to the streets in protest. Some 92 percent of strikes in 1994 and 1995 were by teachers protesting unpaid wages, which encouraged more strikes organized for miners, railroad workers, and others. This has led to the formation of a major trade union federation--FITUR. At the beginning of his administration, Putin’s public approval rating increased due to his ability to ensure that civil servants and pensioners receive their money on time. Recently, however, Putin’s popularity has waned due to his attempt to reform social security benefits to veterans and the elderly by replacing free services with cash payments. Putin was forced to increase the amount of cash payments and return some free services after spontaneous protests erupted when the social security reform was first enacted.

The changing patterns of interest articulation are evidenced by the formation of new economic groups such as new entrepreneurs, commercial bankers, private farmers and others interested in protecting rights of property and commerce. Others include former managers of state-owned enterprises, organized labor, consumer organizations, local and city governmental officials, and an estimated 50,000 non-governmental organizations.

The policies of government are most clearly evidenced in the sphere of economics. The government's goal was to reverse economic decline. To do this there was a need for dual transformation, both political and economic systems needed change. The prescriptions for a market economy included a coherent set of enforceable legal rights to ownership and control of capital assets (including privatization), a system of prices reflecting supply and demand and regulatory institutions to enforce rules of the game. The problems stemmed not only from the economic dislocations of the former model, but the sheer size of the economy, the enormous commitment of resources to the military and the need for new infrastructure. The public recognized the need for change but all involved seemed to underestimate the problems. Major failures resulted from Gaidar’s 'shock therapy' of 1992 and his increased effort at privatization. In fact, powerful and wealthy oligarchs emerged from this transition benefiting from privatization of state-run companies. Currently, the problems of fairness, corruption, tax evasion, poverty, social inequality, erosion of public health, alcohol abuse, and declining life expectancy of Russian males, indicate serious challenges to the political and economic system.

Learning new rules and having those rules adjudicated systematically is critical to the growth and stability of Russian democracy. The law governed state and judicial independence were and are principles subscribed to by the majority of the citizens. Judicial reform, therefore, has been a priority. The procuracy, or system of prosecution, was strengthened and its powers enlarged to oversee the justice system including the penal system, check illegal activity by officials, curb abuses of power, and the supervision of the economic bureaucracy. However, the procuracy has been the major source of resistance to the introduction of a jury trial system because they believe it would lower their conviction rates. Although not an essential feature of democracy, it supports democratic values in participation and transparency. The Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Court of Arbitration contribute to the institutionalization of a legal society. Unfortunately, pay and training for judges is very poor, resulting in corruption. This is further compounded by the fact that Russians rely on bribes, personal connections (patron-client networks), or force, rather than the rule of law.

What about the future? Will Russia continue to move towards democracy or suffer irrevocable reverses? It is commonly assumed that Russia has a good chance at democracy--better than at any time in history. However, with a former KGB official as president who has fostered stronger ties with the siloviki (former KGB members), he has gravitated toward more dictatorial measures than expansive democratic reforms. In fact, many political scientists label the Russian Federation as an illiberal democracy, which is exemplified by competitive elections (which is in question due to government pressure placed on oppositionist political parties and citizens) without liberties (particularly free speech and press). President Putin’s dictatorial tendencies are evidenced by the following: (1) the military fighting the resistance of Muslim rebels in Chechnya and having a Kremlin-written Constitution for Chechnya approved by a questionable referendum (2) The indirect elimination of all independent media outlets (media moguls Berezovsky and Gusinsky were harassed by government officials and eventually succumbed to government control of their news agencies), (3) the arrest of Yukos Oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky over tax violations (though many claim he was arrested because he was considered a threat to the government for supporting opposition parties and possibly considering a run for President), (4) the creation of seven prefects to oversee locally elected leaders in the 89 federal regions to ensure they do not ignore or nullify federal policies and (5) being granted the ability to fire regional presidents (governors) with approval by a judge for violating federal laws. Recently, President Putin removed Prime Minister Kasyanov and replaced him with an unknown technocrat named Mikhail Fradkov just before the 2004 presidential elections which Putin one on the first ballot with 71% of the vote. Kasyanov was considered a friend of the oligarchs and one of the last remnants of Yeltsin’s “family” in the administration. With the Duma firmly in the hands of Putin’s supporting party (United Russia) after the December 2003 elections and the selection of the unknown Fradkov as prime minister (Putin’s puppet), Putin’s power will continue to strengthen with little opposition from the legislative branch.

Will the attacks on 9/11/01 further permit Putin to expand authoritarian control over Russia without scrutiny from the international community? Demands of the Muslim rebels in Chechnya for more autonomy continue to be a major source of ethnic conflict and violence in Russia. Rebels have resorted to terrorist attacks, such as the recent hostage crisis in a Moscow theater that resulted in deaths of both patrons and rebels when the military used gas to expel the rebels, the surprise attack at a Beslan school resulting in the deaths of numerous children, and the recruitment of Chechen rebel widows to become suicide bombers (black widows) in public places and planes. While Putin’s view that he is fighting his own war on terror may initially have been accepted by the US without scrutiny, his lack of support for US President Bush’s preemptive strike in Iraq may affect future Russo-US relations. Furthermore, events in Georgia (rose revolution) and Ukraine (orange revolution), has weakened Putin’s position within the CIS. Fearing that reformers in these countries would seek assistance from the West (European Union), Putin supported the repressive rulers in both countries, sometimes in surreptitious ways (possibly poisoning Ukrainian oppositionist reformer Yushchenko), but to no avail since the oppositionists secured control of both countries. While Russia was once the dominant leader within the CIS, it appears that the desire of countries on Russia’s western border to join the EU are beginning to weaken Russia’s ability to maintain these countries’ dependence on Russia.
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