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Novaya Gazeta No. 65, September 2002

Empire, Climb Down!

By Boris Vishnevsky

Firstly nobody knows how key decisions are made - nor the reasons behind them, nor who makes the decision. Secondly, the political elite - the circle of decision-makers - is made up solely of people who have been appointed and not elected.Thirdly, issues of vital national importance are never subject to open debate.

Issues which affect millions of Russian citizens - from the reforms to the war in Chechnya and nuclear waste imports - are usually dealt with behind closed doors, and take a public form as decrees or resolutions only after the event. Even when a decision needs to pass through parliament, it does not result from constructive debate. With our current Duma, any attempts to use reasonable arguments to persuade the pro-government majority in the lower house are pointless, if that majority has different orders from above.

The selection criteria for members of the Cabinet, presidential administration, or the Federation Council are not known; thus, dilettantes with dubious reputations may end up in positions of power. At the same time politicians with undoubted skills, expressin views that are shared by most Russian citizens remain locked out of decision-making, as they are not promoted to the elite.

Last but not least, while censorship has not been officially introduced, self-censorship is on the rise. Most media outlets present the standpoint of the president and the government as the ultimate truth, as if there can be no other solutions to a given problem. No one argues with the opposition; the opposition is simply ignored. It is impossible to systematically promote any point of view in the media which differs from the official point of view. Disagreement with the president is not yet a crime, but it is universally viewed as political suicide all the same.

In other words, citizens have virtually no influence with the regime. The government does not have to be guided by the opinion of citizens - as it is not dependent on citizens for anything. Duma deputies (and Federation Council members) are convinced that their seats in the next parliament depend on how diligently they carry out the will of the presidential administration, rather than on the electorate.

What is left? The right to elect the president and regional leaders? Everyone knows, however, that elections are too serious a matter to entrust to the people. Remember 1996, when a man distrusted by 97% of the people six months before the election still managed to win? Political scientists no longer discuss the policies of candidates for regional leader positions, or their character, or their skills. They discuss which candidate has the Kremlin's support.

In the meantime, the independence of the authorities from citizens inevitably leads to certain consequences, most importantly: the authorities make decisions which promote interests that might have little if anything to do with the interests of the people.

The president has just said that we should raise domestic gas prices to international levels. Clearly, this is primarily the wish of Gazprom. It is also clear that tariffs will grow after that is done, and that prices will skyrocket. It isn't hard to predict the results of any opinion poll on the issue, if an opinion poll was held.

Let me provide another example: the government's determination to impose additional telephone charges (timed calls), something that must Russian citizens oppose: however, they are given to understand that no one cares about their opinion on the matter...

Corruption in Russia is undeniable. What else can we expect in a country where issues worth billions are decided by a single signature behind closed doors?

The lack of accountability, resulting in widespread violation of citizens' rights, is also apparent. Access to free medical treatment, entitlement to benefits and grants, or refusal to pay unlawful taxes, or receipt of residency registration - all these become problems that cannot be solved, all too frequently. Why is this the case? Because the officials who demand bribes for such things will keep their jobs unless those who appointed them decide otherwise. In other words, carrying out orders from above will be more important than the law for those officials.

And finally, an authoritarian system lacking any mechanism for feedbackworks much faster than a democratic system, of course. On the other hand, it makes mistakes more frequently. To err is human, after all. It is common knowledge that the president is responsible for everything in Russia. But being responsible for everything really means being responsible for nothing - as it is beyond the ability of a mere mortal to know all the problems of a huge country, much less to know the solutions to them all. And when the president makes a mistake, there is no one to correct it. In the past, parliament was considered a hindrance to the reforms; now it has been pushed aside, transformed into a purely decorative body.

Compare all these issues with what we planned to reject at the outset of Russia's democratic era - and you will find a lot of similarities. Why are we almost back to square one?

It is possible, of course, to blame ill will or some cunning CIA ploy, but a different explanation (or theory) provides a much better answer. What we see around us, and what we have in Russia today, is an inevitable result of an experiment initiated in 1991, involving the transformation of Russia from a parliamentary republic into a presidential republic. Crowned by the ancient Russian traditions of a single decision-making centre, and certainty that the leader is above the law, the "presidential model" could not generate anything else.

A presidential republic - with its vertical concentration of power – inevitably becomes bureaucratic and self-replicating at all levels. If promoted into a position of unquestioned power, even a saint would be easily persuaded that expanding power is in the interests of the people and the nation. To expand his power, he taxes businesses, takes over the media, and does away with potential rivals...

Is there a way out of this situation? If the system that does not meet our needs is the result of a certain decision, that decision has to be revised. This means we should abandon the "presidential model" - and its corollary, direct election of regional leaders by the citizenry. In other words, we need to return to the parliamentary representative model, which existed in Russia in 1990 and 1991.

Theoretical debates between advocates of presidential and parliamentary republics have lasted for centuries. Each system has its own pluses and minuses; each system can and does work within the framework of democratic processes. Of all the world's democracies, the "presidential model" is only successful in the United States. Almost all advanced European democracies prefer parliamentary democracy. And not only European nations: suffice it to recall Canada or Australia, India or Japan. Meanwhile, the presidential model is more typical of corrupt Latin American or Asian regimes.

It is widely thought that the European way of development offers the best way forward for Russia. If this is really the case, it would be only logical to chose the European model of our republic as well: the path of parliamentary democracy, in other words. A system without a Great Leader - who poses a threat to the citizens of his own country, regardless of his personal traits. A system where it is impossible to raise prices, declare war, or withdraw billions from the budget with a single signature. Where politicians vie for seats in the legislature, rather than for positions in the executive branch. Where parties form the government, and not vice-versa. Where there are no monopolies on power, information, or ideology...

Some might call this utopian and assert that Russia has different traditions. Well, back in 1987, calls to abolish Article 6 of the Constitution would have been assessed as absolutely impossible. Not to mention a multi-party system, or independent media. And who can say that the tradition of the guiding role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was less resilient than the tradition of the president's guiding role?

At one time there was considerable debate about Boris Yeltsin's potential successor. Everyone agreed (rightly) that in view of the high stakes, all methods would be used.

We should expect a discussion of Vladimir Putin's successor sooner or later. There can be no doubt at all that the means used to ensure the succession will be no better than last time. After all, the end justifies the means.

It is possible to prevent such means being used - but only by removing the goal itself.

See also:
Understanding Russia

Novaya Gazeta No. 65, September 2002

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