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Russia/Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- Powers Divided, Powers Balanced

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 26 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Parliamentary boycotts in the Russian Federation and Ukraine have created crises of power in both countries. But what may ultimately prove to be far more important is that each of these actions appears to represent another step along the road from the unitary power characteristic of communist states to the checks and balances that typically are part of more democratic ones.

The way these two actions have created crises of power not surprisingly is far more obvious. In Russia, lawmakers from three reformist and centrist parties boycotted Duma sessions last week to protest a deal between acting President Vladimir Putin's Unity bloc and the Communist Party that divided committee chairmanships between the two and led to the election of Communist Gennady Seleznov as speaker.

Those leading the boycott -- the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, the Union of Rightist Forces, and the Yabloko party -- insist that they have taken this dramatic action to call attention to the ways in which the Unity-Communist deal has the effect of excluding them from participation in the parliament's lawmaking activities.

And their walkout, which Yabloko's leaders said would continue, has already led many in both Russia and the West to question Putin's commitment to democracy and market reforms, a process that several observers have suggested may reduce his chances to be elected president in his own right on the first ballot. That in turn has led even those generally supportive of Moscow to adopt a more critical line.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, another parliamentary walkout last week has led to an analogous crisis of power and to speculations about that post-Soviet republic's prospects for democracy and free market reforms. Last Friday, the pro-reform majority faction in the Ukrainian parliament not only withdrew from that body but held a separate meeting at which they voted to oust the hard left speaker of the country's legislature.

The center-right deputies took this move after parliamentary maneuvers by the left had blocked their attempt to remove Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko two days earlier. But Tkachenko's left-wing supporters denounced the subsequent vote as invalid because the balloting had not taken place in the parliamentary building as they insisted was required.

Just as was the case of Russia, observers pointed to these Ukrainian events as a crisis of power in that country, a crisis which they said reflected continuing and deep divisions between those who want reform and those who are nostalgic for the Soviet past.

But there are at least three deeper and potentially more long-lasting implications of what these boycotts mean for the future of Russia and Ukraine.

First, both reflect struggles by parliamentarians over whether and if the legislatures to which they belong are to serve as a check on executive power.

In the not so distant communist past, legislatures were a rubber stamp for the will of the executive. More recently, each represented a locus of power which acted with little regard to the other. But now, deputies in both countries are seeking to find ways to work with the executive branch, even as they insist on their own autonomous source of authority.

In no established democratic country was the establishment of checks and balances of this kind easy. And in many of them -- including the United States -- boycotts by legislators over one issue or another helped to advance this arrangement of power between these two branches of the state.

Second, both cases reflect the tensions, always present in democratic societies, between procedural and substantive concerns.

Democracy is about procedures, about the ways in which the population governs itself. But it is also about making substantive decisions, about determining outcomes that reflect the will of the majority.

In established democracies, these two features are seldom in open conflict, but in emerging democracies, the situation can be very different. And the temptation to insist on substantive outcomes as a measure of democratic success inevitably tends to grow when one or another group of powerholders works to block the will of the majority.

And third, and again in both Russia and Ukraine, these boycotts highlight the ways in which parliaments even more than presidents are dependent on the power of the media to advance their power and to block the actions of executive fiat.

In both, the executive branch even now can sometimes act with little or no regard for the legislature. But legislators are learning that they have the ability to appeal to the press to build up their own power, thus confirming the dictum of the author of the American Declaration of Independence that a free press is more essential to democracy than even a free legislature.

Because democratic institutions remain relatively weak in Russia and Ukraine, these two crises may have the most unfortunate consequences at least in the near term. But they may have just the opposite effect over the longer haul. That is because each appears likely to end both the unitary power of the communist past and the fragmented power of recent years and thus to lead to the checks and balances typical of developed democracies.

To the extent that happens, these two boycotts may come to be seen not as a crisis in the existing system but as the birth pangs of a new one.