Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 10

By Aleksandr Tsipko

Society awaited Putin’s decree on the creation of the State Council with anticipation and interest. It was clear to everyone that after his rout of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament–when he turned it into repository for the second rank of the regional political elite–the country needed some sort of mechanism for bringing together the center, the regions and the peoples of our immense country.

The lower house of parliament, the Duma, cannot perform this harmonizing function, because it is formed mainly along party and class lines, and is the arena for the political battle between left and right; the new Federation Council–which, according to the amended constitution, is made up of representatives appointed by the governors and speakers of regional legislative assemblies–will not have any political authority at all. A minion–even the minion of a governor–is still a minion. He is not capable of contemplating the affairs of state and playing the politician when the sword of Damocles is hanging over him in the shape of a possible recall from Moscow.

The worst job in politics in the new Russia used to be that of prime minister, whom the president could and still can dismiss at any time. But the position of the senators–appointed and potentially recalled by the local authorities–will be even weaker and more exposed. The rewards are not worth the risk even for a self-respecting deputy governor. Basically, all these reforms of the Federation Council have resulted in an absurd situation. The fate of the country, issues of war and peace and state borders, are now in the hands of minions of the regional elite who will be twitching their strings. Under such circumstances, with a virtually nonexistent upper house of parliament, and a Duma whose fate is uncertain, a venue is required where the president can meet face to face with the regional leaders, at least from time to time. The idea of an Assembly of the Land has always hung in the Russian air. The question is how to apply it to today’s conditions. Because we have preserved the Soviet semi-elective, semi-corporative state, then perhaps we should also restore the Soviet Central Committee? The whole problem is that Putin’s State Council is not up to the job of replacing the old Central Committee, nor of partially compensating for the previous Federation Council. Alongside the abortive and incomprehensible new-look Federation Council there is the equally makeshift State Council. One stopgap structure is hastily put up alongside another.

Of course, it could have been worse. The danger of the State Council being turned into a closed, elite assembly of the leaders of Russia’s wealthiest regions has been averted. So has the danger of giving further offense to the regional leaders, and, above all, affronting the national sentiments of the leaders of the republics. First and foremost, the leaders of every subject of the Russian Federation, without exception, should be represented in the State Council. Otherwise, instead of being a mechanism for integration, it might undermine Russia’s national unity–at a time when there is an ongoing war in Chechnya, when the North Caucasus is threatening to secede from Russia and when the national policy of the last few years has failed.

Even the tsar did not risk ignoring the honor and dignity of the small and large nationalities which made up the empire; he was concerned with the feelings of the Poles, and the Kalmyks and the Yakuts, not to mention the Tatars and Bashkirs. Even tsarist Russia stressed that it was a union of kingdoms and kings, and that the emperor was not just the tsar of the Russians, but the king of the Poles and the Finns and so on. And yet it seems to me that the idea of the State Council has not been fully thought through. All its structures look makeshift and second rate. From the start, the State Council was basically conceived as the driving belt for the presidential administration, just as the trade unions were the driving belt for the communist party in Soviet times. Putin’s decree rules that the president himself will chair and convene State Council sessions. He also appoints its presidium of seven regional leaders. One of the Kremlin deputy chiefs of staff acts as secretary on a voluntary basis, but is not a member of the State Council. There are no Duma leaders, ex-presidents or other types of politicians in the State Council.

There is currently a great deal of argument and criticism surrounding the question of how the president decided upon the composition of the first State Council. One might agree that Tatarstan’s Mintimir Shaimiev takes precedence over Chuvashia’s Nikolai Fedorov. But it is not at all clear why the first presidium included the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council rather than the leader of Kabardin-Balkaria, who is popular in Russia. Of course, the outcome of the second Chechen war depends in many ways on stability in multi-ethnic Dagestan. But it should not be forgotten that the leader of Kabardin-Balkaria is also the leader of all the Adygei people in the North Caucasus, and that the fragile national consensus on Russia’s southern border depends on the loyalty shown towards Moscow by this, the largest ethnic group in the region. Perhaps the appointment of members of the presidium should not have been left to the will of the president; perhaps the “Central Committee”–that is, all the members of the State Council–should have been given the opportunity to elect their own ruling body. The outcome would probably have been the same, but the psychological effect would have been quite different.

As it stands, the State Council as described in the president’s decree–an advisory body, with no clearly defined powers, rights and duties–just looks like more political window-dressing. A council of this sort might have been appropriate for Aleksandr I in the days of serfdom, but at the end of the 20th century, when there is a critical lack of national consensus, such informal, nonbinding chats with the president appear somewhat frivolous. Why repeat the experience of Yeltsin’s Presidential Council, which was a dead duck?

Putin’s freshly-baked institution has far fewer powers than the State Council set up by Nicholas II in 1905, which ratified the laws passed by the Duma, and acted as a sort of buffer between the czar and Russia’s first parliament, surviving right up to the revolution.

But if Putin did not want to share power at all, then even in this respect his new project is vulnerable. There should be dialog not just with the regional leaders, but also with the leaders of the Duma factions and the heads of Russia’s main religions. If you’re going to confer at all, then you should confer with all influential forces. As it stands, this is neither one thing nor the other. It is neither a house of nationalities nor a house of senators…

The whole story of the formation of the State Council and the reform of the upper house of parliament casts doubt on the question of whether Putin’s current team is able or equipped to undertake a serious reform of state power; it also casts doubt on the wisdom of combining an attempt to strengthen democracy with the problem of restoring the power hierarchy which the country so needs. Putin’s team are in many ways acting like temporary occupants, reacting to the immediate situation rather than thinking about the secondary and tertiary consequences of their reform projects, which are aimed solely at strengthening their own power base. No serious strategy can yet be discerned in Putin’s political reforms. He has no coherent national policy. His team cannot see the entirety of the problems related to the lack of civil society in Russia.

Unfortunately, “de-communization” was identified with the destruction of the state. But it was possible to build a strong state without putting up so many unnecessary makeshift structures; the regional barons could have been put in their place, for example, without destroying the Federation Council and turning it into a repository for the second rank of the regional elite. The motives for divesting the heads of the local legislative assemblies of their senatorial powers are unclear. They were not economic planners: That is, they did not combine executive and legislative power, but only represented the sovereign interests of the peoples and regions of Russia. If Putin’s team had given proper thought to this, and taken into consideration the problem of reinforcing local government and strengthening its authority, then it would certainly not have thrown the leaders of the local legislative assemblies out of federal politics. But one probably cannot demand the impossible from Putin’s present team. The changing of the political guard in Russia happened faster than was necessary for carrying out sensible reforms. Putin’s team is made up of the same “1970s generation” from which Gaidar selected his team. This is the decisive factor both for an understanding of the shortcomings of Gaidar’s economic reforms, and for an understanding of the reasons for the flimsy nature of Putin’s state reforms. In both cases there was no grasp of the fact that destroying the old will not automatically create anything new and reliable. Those of the 1970s generation, who came to power after the break up of the Soviet Union, have many good qualities. They are educated, disciplined and efficient; they also have a fine command of foreign languages. But they have one serious flaw. They are extremely technical rather than humanitarian in their way of thinking; they do not sense the social or moral implications of the reforms they are carrying out. They do not have the gift of a sense of time and historical continuity. All they have done until now lies outside the national and historical context. It is important to say that “Russia has to be picked up off its knees.” But it is also necessary to know what is meant by this promising slogan.

The 1970s generation is able to act effectively only on a level, defined plane. Thus in many ways the political moves of Putin’s team are just as situation-based as those of the radical democrats.

A few examples from history. With the help of the newly elected president of the RSFSR in 1991, they wanted to defend themselves against a possible comeback by the party nomenklatura. This was how the first makeshift structure in democratic Russia appeared. Then they abolished the post of vice president, in order to free Yeltsin of another potential Rutskoi. They eliminated the system of soviets which had put down its roots in Russia, in order to undermine the political base of the left-wing patriotic opposition. In so doing they did not take account of the fact that without the leading role of the CPSU the soviets were merely ordinary organs of government. In rapid time, they distributed the country’s main assets to random people in order to secure themselves against a revenge attack from the administrative system.

Many of the political initiatives of Putin’s team are just as situational. They created the feeble and incoherent Unity movement in order to strip the KPRF of control of the Duma. They routed and discredited the upper house of parliament in order to take the autocratic regional leaders in hand. And now they have created the ornamental State Council, which has no rights, in order to win over the offended governors–though they have forgotten about the equally embittered speakers of the regional parliaments. Yet it is clear today that a situational solution does not so much solve a problem as sweep it under the carpet. In themselves, Putin’s situational victories, for all their significance, do not bring a new quality or make a breakthrough into a new political dimension. This is all merely the arithmetic of domestic politics. For a qualitative breakthrough, you do not need arithmetic, you need algebra. Even reestablishing control over the breakaway Chechen republic will not solve the problem of the integrity of the country until new principles and values are found for a new union of Chechens, Russians and all the peoples of the North Caucasus within the New Russia. Restoring the power hierarchy per se will not resolve the problem of integrating the westernized capital cities with the patriarchal depths of the Russian provinces.

Putin himself must decide when it is time to think about his historical legacy, when to exchange political arithmetic for political algebra. Putin himself must decide which of his many makeshift structures he will abolish and which he will underpin with a secure foundation. But undoubtedly, the era of Putin’s makeshift structures has played itself out.

Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya gazeta.