One of the most remarkable points to appear in President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address this year was his reference to the possibility of parliamentary rule in Russia. Putin said that he not only supports “the policy of strengthening the impact of the political parties in general,” but “considers the possibility” of taking into account the results of December’s Duma elections and “forming a professional and efficient cabinet based on the parliamentary majority.” This would be a sharp departure from the current system, where the government answers to the president and the role of parliament is confined to approving his choice of prime minister.
It is obvious that the president, who can speak clearly when he wants to, preferred to be obscure on the question of a government formed out of the parliamentary majority. It is one thing to directly form a cabinet based on the results of the Duma election, and quite another “to take into account” the election results when forming the government. And a cabinet “of” the parliamentary majority is not the same as a cabinet “resting on” the parliamentary majority. Even the current cabinet is to some extent based on a parliamentary majority. The existing majority in the Duma supports the executive branch, and ministers Aleksei Gordeev (deputy prime minister, agriculture), Boris Gryzlov (interior) and Sergei Shoigu (emergencies) belong to United Russia, the largest party in the Duma.
The idea of making Russia into a parliamentary republic did not come out of the blue. It was discussed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first draft of Russia’s 1993 Constitution, prepared by Oleg Rumyantsev, included approval of cabinet ministers by the parliament, but this provision did not make it into the final version. The Communists continuously pressed for parliamentary rule after 1995, when they became the largest party in the Duma. When Viktor Chernomyrdin sought to win Duma confirmation as prime minister in the aftermath of the 1998 financial crisis, he promised, if appointed, to set up a parliamentary cabinet. Chernomyrdin was rejected, but the candidate then approved by the Duma, Yevgeny Primakov, did form a kind of coalition government. It included a Communist deputy prime minister (Yury Maslyukov), a Yabloko finance minister (Mikhail Zadornov) and even a minister from the Liberal Democratic Party (Sergei Kalashnikov). Then, in 2002, an amendment proposing that the parliamentary majority form the cabinet was discussed in the Duma. It failed, but was seriously debated, and most speakers regarded parliamentary rule as the likely future of the Russian political system.
Most of the political class and the attentive public see presidential rule in its current form as a recipe for an irresponsible cabinet, with no transparent, public process by which ministers have to account for their actions. An irresponsible parliament is a related result, since deputies can criticize the government without having to share in the burden of government. The introduction of parliamentary rule would increase the public accountability of the government and the Duma, but the resulting system could turn out to be unstable and possibly even more corrupt than it is now. So, the public and the elites remain undecided.
If the president really wanted to change the way the government is appointed, he could do so without amending the constitution. This is because, in its present form, the constitution provides no details regarding how the president’s nominee for the post of prime minister is selected. The president could simply announce that he will accept the candidate presented by the Duma majority.
After the president’s address, the reactions in the Duma were mixed. The Communists stayed calm, since they were sure that Putin did not envisage appointing a prime minister nominated by a leftist parliamentary majority. Were the Communists to win the upcoming elections in December, the Kremlin would drop all talk about parliamentary rule.
The Communists aside, virtually all the other forces represented in the Duma can be regarded as pro-presidential. So, a possible new policy would seem to make them obvious winners. But the general reaction was, in fact, more complicated than one of simple merriment. Of course, everybody would be glad to choose a government or to become a minister. On the other hand, the president’s phrasing was too intricate to be taken simply as it was. Putin meant something else, beyond his actual words. But what? The lawmakers were perplexed. Irina Khakamada, one of the leaders of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), suggested that Putin himself may be planning to enter the Duma after 2008 and then to become prime minister as the head of the parliamentary majority. However, less sophisticated party leaders decided that Putin was more or less promising places in the next cabinet to representatives of the Duma majority parties. The circle of pretenders includes all the pro-Putin parliamentary parties: That is, not only United Russia, but also the Popular Party headed by Gennady Raikov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats, Yabloko, the SPS (with some reservations), and possibly Gennady Seleznev’s Russia’s Revival Party.
Viewing this list of pretenders to office rather nervously was Boris Gryzlov. He is the leader of United Russia (and still not formally a party member, since he is simultaneously the interior minister). He hurried to explain that “the president’s thesis on parliamentary rule is the position voiced by United Russia.” Indeed, as early as September of 2002, United Russia’s Aleksandr Bespalov spoke fervently in favor of parliamentary rule and of ministers drawn from elected politicians. Recently, though, Andrei Isaev from the party’s General Council explained that such changes might only be possible after the establishment of a “strong and sustainable” centrist (that is, presidential) majority in the Duma.
Following the president’s words it was evident that something had to be done–but what? The people from United Russia were the most straightforward. They invited a few members of the cabinet, including Aleksei Kudrin (finance) and German Gref (economic development) to join their party. Their victims asked for time to think the offer over. Later it turned out that Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov had also been propositioned by United Russia. Moreover, dignitaries from the SPS also spoke, semi-officially, about inviting Kudrin, Gref and Leonid Reiman (telecoms) to join their ranks. Currently, the SPS has one full cabinet member (Aleksandr Pochinok, labor), one deputy minister (Aleksei Ulyukaev, finance) and regards the ministers from the “reformist bloc” (finance, treasury, economic development, anti-monopoly) as being “ideologically close.” It is not known whether other parliamentary parties have been trying to recruit cabinet ministers.
An obvious response to the president’s invitation would have been to form “shadow cabinets,” but this is not being done. The existing resources of the parliamentary parties, both political and professional, are rather scarce. Only the Communists have established the good habit of publishing, as a part of their Duma campaign, the composition of a “national confidence cabinet” that includes the popular leaders of the Left. The other parties are probably frightened of offending the Kremlin–and rightly doubtful of their qualifications for government jobs.
If the Duma members were understandably excited by the president’s words, ordinary citizens remained skeptical. According to an opinion poll conducted by FOM immediately after the president’s address, only 24 percent supported the idea of parliamentary government, while 27 percent were opposed and the rest indifferent. In June of 2003 the ROMIR agency asked people whether the party or coalition that wins the Duma election in December should also form the cabinet. About 30 percent supported the concept, 46 percent were strongly against and 24 percent undecided. When asked what type of cabinet would be more efficient, 43 percent chose one appointed by the president and only 17 percent preferred that formed by the Duma majority. So, the voters do not seem especially interested. This should worry the Kremlin, since increasing the voters’ sense of involvement is ostensibly one of the purposes of such a reform. The theory behind the proposed shift to a Westminster-style system is that voters will be energized if they are voting for a parliament that forms the future government rather than for the members of an almost totally irresponsible legislature.
Another idea repeatedly emphasized by Putin is that of increasing the role of the political parties in Russian society and turning them into real political forces. The Kremlin’s strategy to achieve this is to reduce the number of parties and also to deprive all other citizens’ organizations (trade unions, human right groups and others) of the right to participate directly in election campaigns. Forgotten in this approach, however, is the fact that only free and vigorous political competition can create “real” political parties.
The political market in Russia today is severely limited by the president’s powers to regulate, supervise, control and discipline its operations. In this climate, any cabinet “based” on the parliamentary majority is bound to be the cabinet produced by the president and his administration. So long as Russia continues to be ruled by a president whose position is considered to be “above” the political parties, this maneuvering over the role of political parties will continue to be like child’s play. Indeed, rather than the parliament taking over the government, it is more likely to be a case of the government taking over the parliament.
However, even so tentative an initiative from Putin may yet create an opening for some interesting developments. If the parties, even in their current state, are officially allowed to participate in real government work, it could motivate them to build real party machines–initially at the national level. Even a few political appointees could bring significant change to the workings of the cabinet. And for Putin, the possibility of sharing responsibility with the cabinet and the parliament may turn out to be useful.
Katia Mikhailovskaya is vice president of the Panorama analytical information agency, which can be found on the web at www.panorama.ru.