The Thorny Questions

We are used to Western political terminology in Russia. The buzzwords are: the presidency, parliamentary elections, and political parties. One is tempted to start thinking that the political process here is a version of one of the Western democracies. Yet upon closer examination, it is evident that today there is no system of Russian government.


In the post-Gorbachev euphoria, the democrats rushed to imitate American democracy. We heard much then about division of powers, rule of law and constitutional order. There was the president, the vice president, the constitutional court and the parliament. Western observers wrote about Russian democracy as if it had already been established.


Then it turned out that the vice president did not act as he was supposed to; instead he became a leader of the opposition. The parliament usurped ever growing prerogatives for itself, ignoring the presidency and trying to overthrow the president first by legal and then by violent means. The Constitutional Court acted as if it were above both president and parliament, and passed judgment before it had laws and decrees in hand, in a manner that shocked Western observers.


This failed experiment to transplant U. S. institutions onto Russian soil shows that politics here is is still done in a very Russian and very Soviet way.


Now we have the head of state issuing decrees just as Nicholas II did. According to the Russian Constitution, the autocrat had the right to dissolve the Duma and issue decrees in the interim period before the new Duma was elected.


Historical parallels aside, it is not clear what kind of presidency there will be in Russia after the December elections. Is it to be modeled again on the American presidency, only this time without the vice president? What is the role of the prime minister? If Yeltsin defines his role as being above political parties, as he is doing now, will he then delegate government policy-making to the cabinet?


Strictly speaking, the cabinet today is not a cabinet at all but an uneasy coexistence of two groups. There are ministers and there are "power ministers" - defense, security, interior. The regular ministers publicly complain that they not only do not participate in, but are not even consulted on, government policy-making. The cabinet meets irregularly and key policies are made elsewhere.


The Defense Ministry acts as if it were not merely a ministry in a government subordinate to the presidency and, presumably, the future parliament, but an equal to the presidency itself.


In addition to the prime minister, a host of deputy prime ministers shape policy, and it appears that the first deputy prime minister overshadows the prime minister as a key policy-maker. Moreover a host of advisers official and unofficial to the president, together with the deputy prime ministers - what we know as the Yeltsin team - formulate government policy.


Is the cabinet of ministers going to be responsible to the parliament, reasserting its prerogative to debate and make government policy after elections? That is very unlikely in view of the fiasco with the previous parliament. The president is likely to try and diminish the cabinet's accountability to the parliament and guard his own freedom of action vis-a-vis the cabinet.


Much remains unclear about the Federal Assembly itself. If we apply the standard Western criteria in assessing the input of a parliament we should ask: Will the new Federal Assembly control the state budget? Will the government be responsible to it (as in Britain or Germany)? Can the Federal Assembly register a vote of no-confidence in the government? and if it does, what are the guarantees that it will not be dissolved? and what is then the role of the president? Will cohabitation work in Russia as in France or Poland?


There are meanwhile so many political parties, electoral blocs and movements in Russia that even a sophisticated voter would have a hard time understanding who is who. In fact these are not political parties in the West European sense, with a clear political image, leadership and policy programs, neither are they parties in American sense with looser affiliation but a set of principles and programs voters choose to support.


Russian parties are minuscule groupings of prominent personalities and their entourage. They are constantly bickering, splitting, uniting, and inventing new names and switching sides. It is difficult to understand why people who are all in Yeltsin's team now belong to different parties, which publicly declare that they will cooperate in elections. It is unclear whether even within the electoral bloc the Russia's Choice unity will outlast the December elections. New divisions and splits among the "democrats" are likely.


In the wake of the October fiasco the rightist nationalist and Communist forces are in disarray. They are splintered into several remaining small parties and have no prominent leaders. Public opinion polls show that their influence in the capitals is small. Yet in the provinces, they may do well. It remains to be seen if social polarization will push those millions hit by market forces into the arms of nationalist and neo-Communist parties.


At present most political parties limit their pronouncements to vague generalities, such as freedom, property and law. Who will define the limits of political freedom and how will they do it? Who will decide in the future which newspapers should be closed? Ordinary Russians have been cheated out of what was supposed to be national property. Rule of law? Which law? The decrees passed after Oct. 4, or the laws to be passed after Dec. 12?


Until we know the answers to at least some of these thorny questions, it is premature to talk about Russian democracy, or the rule of law.


Vladimir Brovkin is a fellow at the Russian Research Center of Harvard University. He wrote this comment for The Moscow Times.