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The East: Analysis From Washington -- Presidents, Prime Ministers And Power Ministers

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The transition from communism in the post-Soviet states currently finds some countries with strong presidents, some with strong parliaments, and ever more in which real power lies outside the governments themselves.

Examples of each have been very much in evidence this week. In Azerbaijan, where the executive is clearly in charge, President Heidar Aliyev has dominated the discussions at a Baku meeting of Western oil companies interested in gaining access to the petroleum of the Caspian basin.

In Ukraine, where the parliament is predominant, the failure of the Verkhovna Rada to elect a new speaker has sent shockwaves through the political system and led to predictions that Kyiv will remain unable to address the country's numerous economic problems.

And in Russia, the country's economic crisis has highlighted just how much power has passed from the government to institutions beyond its reach.

Instead of calling in bankers, journalists and others and giving them directions as would have been true only a few years ago, Russian officials from President Boris Yeltsin on down have been consulting with them and requesting their assistance.

Such variations are entirely natural and up to a point welcome. There is no one model for how democratic political regimes should organize themselves nor for what the balance of power should be among the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the society as a whole.

And the devolution of power from the executive, always the most powerful in fact if not on paper in Soviet times, is a necessary part of the transition from the communist past.

But if this pattern is both natural and welcome, it also presents some real problems for the countries themselves, for their interactions with one another, and for other countries that seek to deal with them.

For each of the countries of this region, this pattern has created two very different problems. On the one hand, most people in these countries began their post-communist existence with a belief that only a strong legislature could guarantee democracy.

But experience has taught many of them both that legislatures may in fact be a block on further change and that only a strong executive can help them institutionalize the arrangements that make democracy possible.

And on the other hand, everyone in this region recognized that the all-embracing Soviet state was too strong. But ever more countries confront a situation in which the state is so weak that it cannot defend the interests of the population against uncontrolled private power or outside interference.

For the region as a whole, such variations make it increasingly difficult for these countries to cooperate.

Most immediately, it makes it difficult to decide who should meet with whom -- sometimes the president in one country is the appropriate representative and sometimes the prime minister or speaker of the parliament.

And perhaps more importantly, it means that even when the appropriate officials are brought together -- something that does not always happen -- they will lack the power to implement any of the commitments they make.

Finally, for outsiders who want to work with the governments of this region, this incredible variety also creates some serious problems.

Not only does it introduce a certain confusion about the proper approach to these governments -- should ambassadors focus on presidents, prime ministers or someone else? -- but it also means that outside governments may create problems by the choices they make in this regard.

Some Western governments have promoted a presidentialization of politics in these countries both for simplicity and out of a sense that it is easier to deal with one person rather than a group. While understandable, that approach carries with it some real dangers.

On the one hand, it may restrict the transition to democracy by solidifying executive power at the expense of the legislative. And on the other, it tends to ignore the real devolution of authority away from governments to other centers of power in the society.

Democracy, as any number of analysts have pointed out, is often a very messy form of government. But as the experience of the post-Soviet states shows, it can be even messier if those involved with it don't understand just how many forms that messy system can take.