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Russia: Analysis -- Putin's Reforms Undermine Constitution

By Donald Jensen

The changes Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed for the country's administrative structure would drastically shift the balance of power from the regions to the center. In an analysis, RFE/RL's Donald Jensen argues that if those changes are simply imposed from above, they are not likely to increase stability in Russia.

Prague, 31 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a provocative article in "Sovetskaya Rossiya" this month (11 May), legal scholar Georgy Shakhnazarov offers a set of proposals for constitutional reform. His proposals deserve serious debate as President Putin seeks to rework the Russian political system.

Shakhnazarov, currently with the Gorbachev Foundation and formerly an adviser to the former Soviet president, has in the past argued that the Russian constitution should be amended to reduce the strong powers the president enjoys.

Now he turns that argument on its head. Russia's problem, he argues, is not that the president is too powerful. The country needs such a chief executive and the voters support it. Unfortunately, a vigorous parliament and judiciary do not balance this strong presidency, and there is consequently no real system of checks and balances.

Shakhnazarov proposes expanding the article of the constitution that says the president defines the guidelines for domestic and foreign policy. He says the Federal Assembly should also contribute to defining policy.

Further, Shakhnazarov proposes that the government, which under Yeltsin was often overshadowed by the presidential apparatus, should be made more accountable to the legislature. The role of the bloated presidential administration, in recent years a powerful political force, would be curtailed.

The only direct constitutional reduction of the president's powers that Shakhnazarov proposes would be to simplify the process of impeachment, virtually impossible under the current system. Such changes, he believes, would help Putin restore the "normal legal order" for which Russian society is yearning. They would also help the new president achieve his policy goals.

But Shakhnazarov's proposed amendments are unlikely to get much of a hearing in the Kremlin. Having inherited a flawed constitution designed to codify the personal authority of Yeltsin, who used it erratically, Putin has preferred to revise the constitution by stealth -- through decrees and legislation -- rather than by the complicated amendment process.

Putin's restructuring plans are ambitious. He has announced intentions to alter the composition of the Federation Council, reorganize the country into seven superregions administered by presidential appointees, and streamline the process for removing governors. In most countries, such fundamental changes would require constitutional amendment and months of national debate. In Russia, the Putin administration correctly, but unwisely, argues, they do not.

Yet these changes would drastically shift the balance of power between the center and the regions. If they are ordered from above, rather than coming as the result of the constitutional amendment process or a popular referendum, they are far more likely not to work. Thus, such an approach further diminishes the rule of law in a country that desperately needs it.

An additional problem is that Putin's "perestroika" seems to reflect a vertical view of political power that routinely relies on strong -- sometimes coercive -- executive authority to attain its goals.

This top-down orientation is shared by many Russian elites, from the new president to energy magnate Anatoli Chubais. Even if its goals, such as a free market, are laudable, this view is suspicious of political pluralism, the separation of powers, and the resolution of conflicts through negotiation and consensus.

In this regard, one of the most interesting aspects of Putin's proposals to bring the regional governors to heel bring them has been the extent to which it has been welcomed by those who call themselves democrats. These democrats say point out, rightly, that many regional governors are corrupt. Yet they probably are less corrupt than many officials in Moscow, where the temptations are far greater.

Moreover, if the goal of the federal reorganization is to improve local governance, subordinating the governors to the Kremlin is likely to be less effective than making the regional leaders more accountable to their local constituencies.

The current Russian constitution, like many basic laws elsewhere, seeks to balance liberty and order. Thus, the government embodies the principles of popular consent, the separation of powers, and federalism. Popular consent was expressed by the direct election of the Duma. The sharing of political authority by three branches of the federal government was intended to reduce the prospects for tyranny. Federalism gave both national and regional governments independent authority. In such systems, political conflict was intended to be and is usually healthy. These principles, however, have never had deep roots in Russia. The many flaws in the current constitution --including the imbalances that Shakhnazarov discusses -- have further discredited these values, but make adherence to them now even more important.

Last week (24 May), Sergey Medvedev, Putin's first deputy chief of staff, stated his high regard for the country's constitution and added that the "political regime in Russia was and is democratic." At the same time, he urged the Duma to pass the president's package of bills to stabilize the situation in the country and restore the vertical hierarchy of power.

The problem for Putin is that stability is not usually ensured by centralizing power, nor, even where the constitution is deeply flawed, does doing so make it more legitimate or effective.