Building of a Presidency

It has become a trend among journalists and analysts who want to demonstrate their powers of foresight to make predictions about the coming presidential elections. But before entering into arguments about who are the best candidates, it is important to first examine the role of presidential authority in Russia and the prospects for cooperation between the president and other government institutions.

The introduction of the institution of the presidency in the Soviet Union was not well thought out. There was simply no conception of coordinating its authority with that of the soviets and the remaining power of the Soviet Communist Party. Combining the posts of general secretary and president did not allow Mikhail Gorbachev to liquidate the Communist Party. Gorbachev did not want to hold general presidential elections, preferring instead the more or less comfortable option of holding elections to the Congress of People's Deputies -- an option which characterizes countries with parliamentary regimes, where the president plays a rather decorative role. As a result, President Gorbachev became an unwilling hostage both to the Soviet Communist Party, of which he remained general secretary, and to the people's deputies, who could at any time replace him.

The former chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, Boris Yeltsin, learned from Gorbachev's mistakes. He introduced an amendment to the Russian constitution on the general presidential elections that put him both above the party and the parliament. His one "concession" to the deputies -- the possibility of nominating candidates to the presidency -- was meant to hasten the nominating procedures and the elections themselves. The Russian president immediately rose above the party, economic and state apparatus nomenklatura, becoming the "spokesman of the people's sovereignty." Such a situation is characteristic for the majority of East European countries, where the same problems of transforming totalitarianism to democracy are found.

In each of these countries there co-exists two constitutions -- a formal and a real one. The tradition of strong authority and continuing crises strengthen the president's influence. His powers are stronger than what the written constitution grants him. The real source of authority lies in his capacity to organize the state apparatus and to nominate people to influential posts; in his popularity, especially during the initial period of government, when his image is still not worn out; in his direct access to the news media; in his ability to rise above parties and manipulate them; in his potential to threaten to dissolve the parliament; in his personal appeals to voters; and in his control over the armed forces and internal security forces.

Yeltsin has enjoyed all of the powers which characterize the office of the president, acting as commander the armed forces, naming the prime minister, holding referendums, dissolving the lower house of parliament and presiding over key government heads such as the ministerial cabinet. Today the president controls the levers of all three branches of government.

However, such status also has downfalls. Although Yeltsin was able to consolidate much power and become the symbol of the nation, he was unable to extend significantly his legal and political powers. From the beginning there were no mechanisms to carry out presidential powers on a local level. This situation was partly compensated for by the decree "On the Order of Nominating Heads of Administration" of Nov. 25, 1991. The decree lost its force, however, by October 1994 and was replaced by a new act on regional leaders, resembling a small constitution. But the absence of clearly defined power and status of the president's representatives in the republics, the administrative divisions of krai and oblast and other subjects of the federation had by that time caused the political situation in the country to change greatly.

The relations between the president and the government, according to the constitution, significantly narrow the field of action of them both. Responsibility for the government's failures and its dismissal lies with the president. Thus, a crisis of government inevitably means a crisis of presidential authority and instability in the country.

Many see a danger of Bonapartism in the right of the president to dismiss the parliament. However, the president's ability to act is in no way arbitrary. The State Duma can be dissolved only after deputies have refused a candidate for prime minister three times or after a vote of no confidence. By comparison, the president of Greece can dissolve the parliament "in cases, where it is in disagreement with public opinion or the members of the house do not provide for the government's stability." The Italian president has the right to dismiss one or both houses, without providing a motive. In France, presidents General Charles de Gaulle dismissed the parliament twice and Fran?ois Mitterrand once.

The paradox of establishing presidential authority is that sooner or later there must be a transfer of power. Yeltsin will therefore want either to create the conditions for his re-election or stand in the way of the opposition. For this, he will need the backing of the forces that helped bring him to power and who now lend him support in the parliament and the government. In Russia, there is no presidential party, and attempts to create one are now doomed to failure. The time when a political structure could be created from the top is passing by.

Although the head of the Russian government gives the appearance of a "super-president," with enormous responsibilities and powers, in practice, he turns out to be very limited in his activities. Today, a healthy, pragmatic approach is needed for the development of a strong institution of the presidency, which is one of the most important problems facing the building of the Russian state system.

Gennady Burbulis is former Russian deputy prime minister and is now a deputy of the new State Duma. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.