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Policy Watch: Can Russia Improve?

The real problem for Russia is that its 1993 constitution - written while Yeltsin was in a power struggle with Russia's Soviet-era parliament which he ended up dissolving by force - gives too much power to the president. Neither Russia's parliament nor its courts have the ability either to prevent abuses of power or protect ordinary citizens.

Washington (UPI) Oct 23, 2005
Vladimir Putin's second term as president of Russia will expire in 2008. Under the Russian constitution, he cannot run for office again that year. No obvious successor to Putin, though, has yet emerged.

There is talk of amending the constitution to allow him to remain in office for a third term, or even longer. There is also talk of reducing the powers of the president and increasing those of the prime minister in 2008, with Putin then becoming prime minister -- perhaps indefinitely. Putin himself, however, insists he will leave office in 2008, and he will not seek to change the Russian constitution before that.

But whether Putin remains in power either as president or prime minister, or whether someone else becomes president in 2008, Russia is likely to suffer. So far, Putin has devoted most of his efforts to enhancing his own power, but not using it to effectively solve Russia's many pressing problems (which include an increasing health care crisis, chronic corruption and a conflict that is expanding from Chechnya into the entire North Caucasus region).

His crackdown on the media and insistence on appointing security service personnel with little expertise in other areas has limited not just his ability to resolve Russia's problems, but even to understand them. It is doubtful this situation will change if he remains in power for a third term as president, or as prime minister for a figurehead president.

A new president in 2008, though, would probably not be an improvement. For just as Putin spent much of his first term undercutting the political and economic power of those raised up by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, his successor is likely to devote his first term to undercutting the political and economic power of those raised up by Putin.

The property transfers -- especially in the petroleum and media industries -- that were justified in the Putin era on the basis of the "irregularities" of privatization under Yeltsin might all be revisited under the new president on the basis of the "irregularities" that occurred under Putin. Power aggrandizement is likely to take precedence over problem solving under a new Russian president.

Putin serving as prime minister under a weak president may be the worst option if the new president decides he wants to be more than a figurehead, and a power struggle emerges. If Putin succeeds in dismissing him, there will not even be a democratic fig leaf for his dictatorship to hide behind. Yet a supposedly weak president who became strong enough to dismiss Putin as prime minister might not be any better.

The real problem for Russia is that its 1993 constitution -- written while Yeltsin was in a power struggle with Russia's Soviet-era parliament which he ended up dissolving by force -- gives too much power to the president. Neither Russia's parliament nor its courts have the ability either to prevent abuses of power or protect ordinary citizens.

This will remain true no matter who is president if the 1993 constitution remains in effect. Amending the constitution with the aim of allowing Putin to continue ruling -- perhaps for decades -- as prime minister at the end of his second term as president may only make matters worse.

How can Russia overcome this difficulty? One solution might be to institute a constitutional monarchy. The reintroduction of monarchy played an instrumental role in Spain's transition from autocracy to democracy. It could play a similar role in Russia.

Under a constitutional monarch, a prime minister elected by the Duma would run the government. The tsar, or tsarina, would not exercise much direct power. Rather, his or her primary role would be in denying too much power to the government, especially the prime minister. In addition, a decently behaved constitutional monarch could set an example not just for society as a whole, but for the government in particular.

The patronage of the monarch could give powerful protection to journalists and other critics of the government that is not available to them now. Finally, a constitutional monarch with the power to grant clemency could do much to undo the judicial excesses that Putin has allowed.

Would Putin agree to this? It would certainly be in his interest to since it would allow him the opportunity to step down without the risk of losing everything that he now faces if he is replaced by another president under the current constitution, and that he especially faces if he tries to remain in power beyond the end of his second term through altering the constitution.

Who should be the constitutional monarch? There are, of course, many claimants to the Russian throne. One should be chosen from among them by the Duma that will be elected in 2007. What is important is that he or she be relatively young (in his or her 40s or 50s), healthy, intelligent, and last but not least, honorable. It would be helpful if he or she already had an adult child capable of serving as crown prince(ss) so a line of succession could be established.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that the tough guys now running the Kremlin would ever allow a constitutional monarch who would either restrain their power or even just upstage them. But they may well regret not doing this when could have after they are replaced by another bunch of tough guys like themselves.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

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Tartu, Estonia (UPI) Oct 17, 2005
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