Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 100

Yuri Boldyrev, deputy head of the Accounting Chamber, presented an incisive but gloomy analysis of the state of Russian democracy to a conference at Oslo University on May 14. Boldyrev, a St. Petersburg-based politician, was one of the founders of Yabloko but subsequently left the party. He has since tried to position himself as a leader in the fight against corruption and for the establishment of rule of law.

Noting the May 14 comment of Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko that Russia is a poor country, Boldyrev said the reason for this is the failure to construct an effective and responsive political system. He argued that there are several institutional deficiencies which have prevented the emergence of a healthy separation of powers in the Russian constitutional system. First, there is the overarching power of the presidency. “The president has unlimited power and the government cannot make any step without his approval.” The president is essentially unaccountable: the impeachment procedure makes it virtually impossible to remove him, specifying that he must commit treason or a serious felony, such as murder (corruption would not count).

Second, Boldyrev argued that the whole role of government ministers is opaque due to the absence of legislation defining their powers. Nobody seems quite sure what constitutes a decision of the government–whether it can be announced by the prime minister, or must be voted on by the cabinet of ministers. If the government makes decisions about spending, privatization etc. which are later found to be illegal, there is no way to hold any individual to account.

Third, democracy has been stillborn due to the failure of political parties to emerge. Boldyrev argued that there is no incentive for parties to form because the parliament has proved incapable of exerting any influence over the formation of the government. Only where parliaments form the government is there an incentive for voters to take the parties competing for parliamentary seats seriously. Boldyrev frankly admitted that the only reason he formed Yabloko with Grigory Yavlinsky and Vladimir Lukin back in 1993 was to be able to compete for party list seats in the Duma. The three had no common ideology or policy platform. Russian voters have learned, over the past five years, that there is no connection between how they vote in parliamentary elections and the selection of the government. Boldyrev said other factors constraining Russian democracy are government control over much of the media and lack of reliability in the vote-counting and general electoral process.

Most Western commentators have welcomed the recent government reshuffle as evidence that the political pendulum has once again swung towards reform. The appointment of the new government, however, does nothing to address Boldyrev’s structural concerns. On the contrary, it confirms his analysis–since it can be argued that President Boris Yeltsin is setting up the new government to take the blame for economic failure. Yeltsin has staffed the new administration with relatively weak and inexperienced ministers, and has pledged to give it more “independence” than its predecessor. A cynic would say this merely means he can absolve himself of responsibility for its actions. (Vek, 15 May)