An Executive Branch Boris Yeltsin Could Love

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The contract that ended the gas war between Russia and Ukraine has been the source of great confusion, consternation and argument since it was signed on Jan 4. There is little agreement as to which side "won," who stands behind the mysterious intermediary Rosukrenergo, how much Ukraine is actually paying and for how long, how much damage was done to Russia's international standing and what it all means for the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations and European energy policy. Given the opacity of the deal and its implications, no consensus on these matters will emerge any time soon.

It is beyond dispute, however, that the Kremlin went about pursuing its goals in a contradictory and incoherent manner. It was never clear who was representing the Russian side -- was it Gazprom chief Alexei Miller or Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko? Or, as suggested by his last-minute intervention, did the buck stop with President Vladimir Putin himself? In the midst of this foreign policy musical chairs game, it was impossible to make out what in fact the Russians wanted. Upping the price offered to the Ukrainians several times as the Jan. 1 deadline approached solidified the impression of a poorly thought-out negotiating strategy.

Russia's conduct in the dispute resembles the chaotic foreign policy style of the era of former President Boris Yeltsin. In that period, we also never quite knew who was in charge in Moscow; senior officials often freelanced in public and ministries were at loggerheads. Russia seemed incapable of implementing consistent policies. And at times during Yeltsin's presidency, foreign policy became hostage to domestic political disputes.

Putin's first term marked a significant departure from this sort of behavior. During his first few years in office, Putin centralized, streamlined and coordinated foreign policy decision-making to an extent unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia. He asserted direct executive control over the policy-making process and oversight authority over policy implementation. The days of government ministries conducting their own foreign policy were over. Foreign policy was no longer used as a weapon in domestic political battles. The president was now clearly the final arbiter in matters of international significance.

The new trend reflected Putin's general strengthening of the executive branch's authority in Russian politics. By emasculating the once-mighty regional governors and asserting control over both houses of parliament, he eliminated the challenges to the executive's authority faced by Yeltsin. He also cleaned house within executive structures over the course of his first term, installing loyalists in top posts and limiting the extent to which big business could buy policies and officials. For the most part, there was a team approach on major foreign policy issues.

It appears that the Yukos affair marked a turning point in this process. The political friction caused by the event -- and, more importantly, the competition over the massive economic resources that were up for grabs -- precipitated the factionalization of the Putin executive branch. As Putin's second term got under way, it became more and more clear that infighting between individuals and "clans" within the government was intensifying. It appeared as if gang wars between groups dubbed "siloviki," "St. Petersburg lawyers" and "liberals" were simmering inside the Kremlin walls.

Much of what passes for political conflict in Russia now occurs within the executive branch. While the parliament is now little more than a rubber-stamp, it is disputes between Kremlin factions -- especially the siloviki, led by presidential deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin and Putin aide Viktor Ivanov, and the St. Petersburg lawyers, led by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Miller -- that determine major policy outcomes. A particularly glaring example was the failed merger of Gazprom with Rosneft. As a result of this factionalization, the strong Putin executive branch is no more. Although the external threats to its dominance, such as the parliament and the regions, are still largely powerless, the executive has been compromised from within by internecine conflict.

The hapless behavior during the gas war demonstrates that the weakening of executive authority has crippled Russia's capacity to pursue a coherent and consistent foreign policy line. The factions were deeply involved in the chicanery. The St. Petersburg lawyers were well represented at Gazprom: Medvedev is its chair, Miller its CEO, and the president of Rosukrenergo also happens to be a law school classmate of Medvedev's. Meanwhile, an ally of the siloviki, Sergei Oganesyan, heads up the Federal Energy Agency, a sub-ministerial organ of the Industry and Energy Ministry that was involved in the talks. With these powerful groups operating at loggerheads, it is no wonder that the Kremlin appeared to be flailing in several directions at once.

As the gas dispute demonstrates, the weakened Russian executive branch is likely to continue to demonstrate Yeltsin-era pathologies. If the past is any guide, we can surely expect more incomprehensible behavior in the future.

Samuel Charap is a doctoral candidate in political science at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.