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6 September 2016

Executive law: how are decisions made in Russia?

Although the Russian opposition is counting on the parliamentary election due to take place on September 18, the outcome may not play a decisive role in their future

The Russian political system is usually considered to be super-presidential: the president possesses a large number of legislative powers and the right to dissolve parliament. Moreover, the legislative branch has no supervisory powers over the president. However, in 1992, American researchers Matthew Shugart and John Carey suggested a global classification method for political systems whose main political institution is the government but which have the body in charge of its formation and control defined as the main player in the political arena. In Russia, unlike in the US, where the cabinet of ministers is accountable only to the president, the government is also responsible to the parliament. Hence, the system in Russia is classified as president-parliamentary. Even so, the Russian parliament has only been playing a nominal role in the country for many years, having proved to be not the head of the government, but rather its puppet. 

The president has a number of incentives to create his own cabinet of ministers given the current political system in Russia. Recent history has seen at least two vivid examples of a government serving as a “safety cushion” for the president himself. The benefits “monetization” reform developed by Alexei Kudrin, the Minister of Finance at the time, and Mikhail Zurabov, the Minister of Health and Social Development, sparked public outcry throughout the country in 2005. The reform was designed to replace benefits “in kind” (free public transportation, free medicines or vacation packages) with cash payments. It became clear at the implementation stage that the amounts paid out were insufficient to even cover transportation expenses. As a result, thousands of retirees took to the streets in dozens of towns and the presidential approval rating fell from 70% to 45% for the first time. This situation can be considered a turning point and an illustration of the reform process in contemporary Russia. Social reforms have been frozen for years and the government, isolated from outside pressure, came under attack not only from Russian society but also from the head of the state: the president held Zurabov solely responsible in his public rhetoric. President Yeltsin took advantage of a similar mechanism in his days when he held the government of Sergey Kiriyenko, which had been in power for less than five months, responsible for the 1998 default. In both cases, the disgraced ministers were either dismissed or subjected to harsh public criticism by the president. The government has gradually transformed the leverages of influence on political decision-making and has become “smarter” in terms of using the legislative branch.

The Cabinet of Ministers uses the right of legislative initiative far more successfully than individual MPs despite the vast number of bills submitted by MPs (compared to governmental bills). On the one hand, the nearly 4,500 bills submitted by MPs lead to a constant “infoglut” which often prevents the outside observer from distinguishing between real legislative initiatives and provocative ones. On the other hand, some of the bills submitted by MPs are promoted by the ministers themselves: the system under which initiatives are submitted by the executive authorities is complicated as it is necessary for all the governmental parties to reach a compromise on the content of the bill (the governmental commission on legislative initiatives carries out this function). This problem is easily resolved by engaging MPs who are prepared to assist the executive branch in exchange for a guaranteed place in the government. This mechanism means that while the executive branch has the support of the parliament in case a bill prompts a public outcry, it can easily draft and enact laws for its own benefit without entering debate with any of various stakeholders. 

Data from the Automated System of Legislative Activity of the State Duma (ASOZ http://asozd2.duma.gov.ru/)

However, the government of the Russian Federation could already boast of legislative “might” back in the early 1990s. Hence the collective name “young reformers” attributed to the government of Yegor Gaidar, and later to the team of Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov when they were deputy prime ministers. Later on, in the early 2000s, Alexei Kudrin and Herman Gref became a similar team, submitting a package of social reforms. All these cases have a number of common institutional characteristics – all of them came from government and all of them were close to the president. American political scientist Barbara Geddes introduced the term “the pocket of efficiency” for such mechanisms in 1994. The author refers to individual reform priorities for the head of the state. Hence, the initiators of these reforms enjoy special political privileges – for example, the president himself protects them and fends off attacks by citizens, stakeholders or other counterparties to the political process. Government groups, or sometimes a team headed by the prime minister himself, play the role of such a “pocket” of political priorities from the point of view of the president of Russia. And the current parliament serves as a cover for “unpleasant” bills suggested by ministries. In this way, the Cabinet of Ministers serves as a platform for stakeholders aspiring to create new policies.

The office of the prime minister also plays an important part. In particular, it is the PM who forms the government and appoints the federal ministers. The president will always be interested in having “his own” head of government in this kind of institutional setting. According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the president proposes a candidate for this post and the State Duma approves them. Should it fail to approve the candidate three times, the president is obliged to dissolve parliament and call the legislative assembly to election. Besides this, the Duma is entitled to a vote of censure on the government. Subsequently, the president is obliged to dissolve either the Duma or the government. Is it then really necessary to specify in whose dissolution the president is least interested? An example of when election campaigns became a mess and dissolutions of parliament went on for several years can be found in world history. Since 1930, the democratic Weimer Republic went on and on electing parliaments which were subsequently dissolved and were incessantly involved in quarrels with the government. The NSDAP, which came to power in 1933, seemed the only solution to the existing political crisis, offering to restore order to the country.

From an institutional point of view, all these cases are indicative of two important mechanisms employed by Russia’s state apparatus. The first thing is that the government is a tool which the president needs to implement a given policy. The government becomes the center of political decision-making, whereas the parliament acts more as a kind of legitimization machine. Drafted and approved bills have to be “rammed through” it. The second occurs when this very government becomes a “scapegoat” for a failed reform. Under these conditions, the executive power is interested in the parliament as a means of pushing their bills through or as a cover for unpopular reforms, which shields the government from both society and the president. Given such circumstances, the legislature does not fulfill the function of the source of political ideas or alternatives.

The president is therefore tempted to marginalize the opposition in parliament. This opens political “windows of opportunities” for the executive branch and vice versa even in the case of a slight preponderance of pro-governmental forces in the Duma. Thus, the most “complicated” Duma under the incumbent president is considered to have been the Duma of the third convocation, consisting of six parties with no absolute prevalence of a particular political force. Given such fragmentation, the government had to maneuver between the factions and seek the support of different parties. The next chapter of this story is well-known: the merger of the Fatherland-All Russia party and the Unity party into United Russia; and the establishment of A Just Russia whose aim was to “saw” off part of the electorate of communists. And later on, new electoral engineering emerged which culminated in the most monolithic Duma in Russia’s contemporary history.

Still, even if the Duma of the new convocation becomes more fragmented in the fall, or if a greater number of opposition forces are present within it, the institutional design of the political system will not allow it to radically change the current situation. The president-parliamentary system prevailing in Russia is rather unfit for functioning in a democracy over the long term. The opposition minority in the legislative assembly is largely offset by an alternative center of political decision-making – by the executive branch and the president himself, who is endowed with a large number of legislative powers and the right to dissolve parliament. Not only does the president have opportunities, but also numerous incentives, to weaken the legislature and control the government. On the other hand, the opposition majority is dangerous since it is fraught with political crises prompted not only by the regime-related characteristics of the system but also institutional ones. Under the current circumstances, the executive and legislative branches in Russia should either play on one side or create new rules of the game. So far, no one has shown any interest in the latter. 

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