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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Criticizes Putin

Individual Liberties Are the Main Law of a Democratic Society


An open letter to Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation

Respected Vladimir Vladimirovich,

The aim of this letter is to start an open, reasoned public debate on the recent decree on forming seven federal districts and on the package of federal bills that, as you said in your televised address to the nation, are mechanisms of "our democratic state structure" and have as their goal the implementation of a number of measures "on strengthening the unity of state power, ensuring the supremacy of the Constitution" and "federal laws" and developing "truly constitutional principles of federalism."

I, like many people in our country, am convinced of the sincerity of your intentions and in your will to make Russia powerful and flourishing, to make its citizens live in prosperity and well-being. The problem you raise is a key one for our future: how to combine the principles of liberty and democracy with the necessity of effectively managing an enormous country.

Your address included all the key words: "democracy," "federalism," "strong leadership," "loyalty to the Constitution." It is precisely from these positions - these basic categories for Russia's state structure - that I have tried to evaluate the aforementioned documents and, unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that they do not correspond with the goals outlined and will bring more harm than good.

Let me start with an overview.


The decree issued and the prepared package of federal legislation aim to strengthen the power vertical. However, they are an attempt to solve a real problem with inadequate methods. The proposed changes are anti-democratic because, if adopted, they will destroy the system of the balance of power, which is necessary for the normal functioning of any democratic government and market economy, significantly increase the authority of the executive branch of power at the expense of the legislative and limit citizens' participation in the representative management of government. They make the federation's foundations even more shaky inasmuch as they complicate the relationship between the center and the regions, weaken and complicate the existing system of vertical management and will lead to a consolidation of regional elites as their isolation increases. As a result, the new legislation will have the opposite effect of the desired intention. Many aspects of the legislation will introduce insoluble contradictions and chaos into the judicial foundations of constitutional order and the government's federal structure.

Now, I will try to provide the basis for this conclusion, dealing with the form and substance of the issue at hand.

1. Violation of democracy

The vertical division of power is the basic element of a democratic society, along with a horizontal division into legislative, executive and judicial branches. The principle elements of both horizontal and vertical division of power are the independence of the various power structures from each other, the clear limitation of authority within separate institutions of power and the fact that representatives of power are elected by, representative of, and answerable to the people. On the whole, the horizontal and vertical division of power is a guarantee against arbitrary rule and the usurping of power. The observation of the main principles of the vertical division of power is one of the cardinal foundations of democracy. In other words, a "bad" elected leader is better than a "good" leader appointed from above because the system of appointing leaders is defective in principle.

.. On the whole, the proposals significantly limit the powers of local government, violate the balance of a democratic division of power and create a precedent for establishing unitary and authoritarian regimes, both on the level of federation subjects and on the national level.

In the context of the world's experience with federalism, the present Russian government structure corresponds more closely to that of North American and European models based on decentralization of power, which recommend themselves as guarantors of political stability. The proposed legislation will place Russia in the category of Latin American models of federalism, characterized by extreme centralization that leads to instability and a high probability of undemocratic forms of government.

2. Weakening federalism and the power vertical

The point of a federal organization of government lies in the rational balancing of real, objective contradictions between central and local interests. The stability of the federal structure to a much lesser degree depends on control from above than on the feedback and self-regulating impulses from below. The measures proposed increase control from the top down, but they weaken the feedback from the bottom up at the expense of lessening the independence of local authority and its representatives in the center. As a result, this increased control will be accompanied by a lessening of the effectiveness of government.

Logically, the following negative tendencies can be foreseen:

- The heads of the regions will compensate for the weakening of their power in the federal arena by increasing their influence within their regions - using their newly created right to dismiss leaders of local administrations. In addition to a weakening of democracy locally, such a consolidation of local elites will lead to the appearance of closed, corrupt, monolithic local bureaucracies, similar to the administrative party elites of the republics of the former Soviet Union. ...

- The concentration of federal functions in six centers, plus the one in Moscow, will lead to the appearance of de facto "interregional capitals," which violates the principle of equality of subjects of the federation, will inevitably lead to unfairness in the distribution of federal resources, will lead to the appearance of regional leaders divided into "first" and "second" classes and, over the long term, may promote the disintegration of Russia as the result of the appearance of powerful, economically and politically integrated interregional associations.

- The dependence of local leaders on personnel decisions by a higher level of power will lead to the hesitance of the power vertical to deal with real problems locally. The fear of sanctions from above paralyzes the defense of local interests from below, a defense that is now the main mechanism for involving federal authority in the resolution of local problems.

- For the presidential administration of the Russian Federation, the proposed legislation poses the task of practically following all events at the local level and, if the situation requires, of instituting punitive measures; it also poses the task of significant involvement in personnel issues, similar to the previous [Communist] party system. The implementation of functions and powers not now handled by the presidential administration will require the creation of a corresponding apparatus, provision of resources and so forth. In essence, a new vertical power structure will arise, functioning in parallel with existing vertical federal structures - the Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service, Justice Ministry, Health Ministry, Education Ministry and so forth. Thus, significant issues will be decided in a triangular configuration: governor-presidential representative-minister. ...

On the whole, the proposed reform of the federal organization of the Russian Federation includes many characteristics of the Soviet system's relationships between the center and regions. As we know, this system proved to be incapable of dealing effectively with conflicts between the center and the periphery, which in the end served as one of the main reasons for the demise of the Soviet Union.

3. Mentality and freedom

But, Mr. President, there is still one very important achievement of the past decade the destruction of which is more dangerous than all the other consequences of adopting the proposed package of laws.

I assert that the main result of Boris Yeltsin presidency was the changed mentality of millions of people from a slavish mentality dependent on the will of the boss or government - and therefore irresponsible - to a free mentality, dependent only on one's own abilities. The leaders of this change - so fundamental in the building of a democratic government - are entrepreneurs who have founded medium and large businesses, and politicians empowered by the people and responsible to them.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, at the beginning of your ascent you spoke of "the dictatorship of law." Why is dictatorship of law necessary? That is the question. The answer is obvious: to give each person the opportunity to realize his potential to the greatest degree, so long as he does not cause harm to others in doing so. Osip Mandelshtam puts it precisely: "I am betrothed to freedom as to the law " ... to freedom as to the law.

Maintaining maximum individual liberty - that is the point of laws in a democratic society. I do not want to philosophize in this letter, but I find it absolutely necessary to formulate the main issue clearly.

Personal liberty is a system of inner (voluntary) restrictions. For an Orthodox believer, the 10 commandments are enough in principle. But the liberty of a citizen entails external, additional restrictions - laws - written for him by society and government.

The founders of the United States - Jefferson, Washington, Madison and others - first understood that external restrictions ... should be minimal, and they reflected this fundamental concept in the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. experience of over 200 years has demonstrated that the basic principles assumed by these men for building a democratic, federal, strong government were very effective. Later, the majority of European and other governments confirmed by their own example the efficacy of these ideas.

Not anarchy, not free will, but individual liberty, civil liberty as the mentality of a nation - this is the sole key to building a flourishing democratic government.

The package of laws proposed by you significantly restricts the independence and civil liberty of tens of thousands of Russian politicians at the highest level, forcing them to be oriented toward one person and follow his will. But we've already gone through that!

4. Preliminary legal analysis

.. From my point of view, both the decree and the legislation change the government structure of Russia in a fundamental way. Such a decision in a democratic state cannot be adopted without widespread, open discussion by society and a subsequent referendum.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to the egregious, glaring rights violations contained in the legislation.

The proposal on the possible removal of governors during the conducting of an investigation violates a key principle of rights - the presumption of innocence. And the proposal to use this as a norm to remove elected governors and members of legislative bodies of subjects of the federation violates the principle that laws should not be retroactive. No changes in the functions and status of those already elected should be permissible until that individual's term expires; the rules of the game should not be changed after the game has started. I personally would not have run for governor if I knew a governor could thus be removed.

5. How to strengthen the federation and the government

.. Traditionally, the supremacy of central power in Russia was based on strength and force. However, we have set off on a path toward democracy, toward observing rights and liberties. Other countries' experiences give myriad examples of the successful solution to this task by democratic means without limiting the inalienable rights of the federation's subjects and local government.

First, it is important to acknowledge that the possibility of strengthening the power vertical lies not through destroying liberties and the balance of power, but in strengthening the responsibility of those who are obligated to fulfill the law. ... Russian legislation severely punishes the violation of the nation's Constitution. It is simply necessary to put this mechanism to work.

.. Second, to fulfill judicial decisions on observing the Constitution and federal laws, it is reasonable to introduce a legislative norm of federal force, but this force should be conducted only when concrete violations occur. Here we can remember the United States' experience: In the 1960s, when the laws of southern states on racial segregation in schools contradicted federal civil rights laws, President John Kennedy used force in ensuring the observance of federal law in specific schools, but he did not try to oust legally elected governors. In terms of Russia's use of a similar norm, we could introduce the idea that members of the executive branch in federation subjects can be held criminally liable for a specific violation of federal laws.

Third, it is necessary to change the current situation in which the heads of regional branches of federal authorities can only be appointed and removed with the approval of regional leaders.

Fourth, it is obvious there is a need for the division of the branches of power as declared in the Constitution; thus, representatives of executive power - governors and presidents of republics -should not sit on the Federation Council. That should be comprised of representatives - senators chosen by the people via direct elections. Senators' parliamentary immunity and their independence from the heads of the regions will guarantee an extra counterweight to possible abuses in the regions.

Fifth, it is necessary to preserve the existing means of forming the organs of local self-government. And the independence of the heads of local self-government from regional leaders should be not weakened but strengthened.

.. This in no way exhausts the list of necessary decisions, but it is precisely decisions of this nature that will allow us to achieve absolutely correctly formulated goals, to move forward without destroying what has been achieved.

I realize this analysis and my proposals are not exhaustive and, no doubt, require discussion and criticism.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, your personal experience in both St. Petersburg and in Moscow showed, I am sure, that democracy in and of itself is imperfect and that each step in the direction of society's democratic development requires colossal efforts precisely because, in the absence of dictates, you must convince - not command - millions of citizens that you are right.

I ask you not to hurry in deciding a question of historic importance in an enormous, seriously ill country.

As ever, with respect,

Boris Berezovsky

State Duma deputy