After 6 radio interviews (all in French) and 2 TV interviews in the last 18 hours, I’m feeling all-pundited out, but it strikes that it would be odd if a Russia-dedicated blog didn’t say anything the day after the Russian government resigned en masse. So here’s my ha’p’orth on yesterday’s political developments.
The key point you should bear in mind is that it’s all speculation. As I said repeatedly in my media interviews, ‘I don’t know’, ‘it’s not clear’. While some commentators might try to persuade you otherwise, we don’t actually know why Putin has called for amendments in the Russian constitution, what these amendments are meant to achieve, or why the Russian government resigned en masse. The best we can do is hypothesize.
The main constitutional proposals are that: a) parliament, not the president, appoint the Prime Minister and cabinet; b) the State Council, currently an advisory body, be given formal constitutional status in order to promote unified government; c) candidates for the post of president be limited to those who have resided in Russia for 25 years (not 10 as a present), and dual-citizens be barred; and d) the Russian constitution should take precedence over international law (a proposal clearly targeted at limiting the power of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)).
Among hypotheses explaining these proposals are the following:
- Putin wants to create a position he can move into in 2024 so as to remain in power. This might be true, but if so, why do it now and limit his own authority as president for the next four years? Wouldn’t it be better to leave it till later in his term? I find this explanation a little unsatisfactory.
- By dividing power, Putin aims to prevent his successor from being able to take any action against him or other members of the current ruling elite. Again, I’m not entirely convinced by this, as the proposals would make it easier for the parliament and government to move against those currently in authority.
- Putin is aware that the current system is over-centralized and inflexible and needs shaking up to make it more efficient, in part by devolving authority and introducing more political competition. This is certainly what Putin has hinted at, but for the reasons laid out below I’m not at all sure the proposals will actually produce the desired result.
There may be other explanations, and frankly your guess is as good as mine as to which is true. We don’t know what’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s head. Similarly, we’re not in a position to say why Medvedev and his government resigned. Were they blindsided by Putin’s constitutional proposals and felt obliged to quit, or was it that Putin had lost confidence in them and thought that this was an appropriate moment to push them out? I think it’s kind of futile to speculate. Consequently, the ‘why’ of all this interests me rather less than the likely results, for which reason I think it’s worth examining them in a bit more depth.
In line with the third hypothesis above, it makes sense, therefore, to consider questions such as ‘Will these reforms fundamentally change the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they improve the way Russia is governed’, ‘Will they make Russian government more competitive, more responsive, etc?’ Again, the true answer has to be ‘I don’t know’. But here are some thoughts to help guide thoughts on the subject.
1) Political competition. Arguably, the weakness of the Russian party system and the relative lack of political competition in the country are products of a constitution which centralizes power within the executive branch of government. This reduces incentives for the ambitious, or those wishing to influence public policy, to become involved in either party politics or elections. It is more productive to seek influence within the structures of the executive than through the legislature. Competition thus shifts from the public sphere to behind the scenes of state institutions. This can be seen as having negative consequences, in that open political competition is believed to improve accountability, increase leaders’ sense of responsibility, help introduce new ideas into the body politic, and also make the system more responsive to public opinion. Making ministers responsible to parliament rather than the president should, in theory, enhance the power of the legislature, increase its prestige, and so encourage involvement and promote open political competition. This should enhance the effectiveness of government. At least that’s the idea. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen. Even after these reforms, the president will remain the most powerful person in the Russian government. Moreover, in the Russian system ministers are not drawn from members of parliament. Unless that changes, Russia still won’t have a true parliamentary system, merely what is called ‘responsible government.’ This, then, may not fundamentally alter the dynamic wherein the route to influence lies through careers within, and lobbying of, the executive. Parliament may remain a very secondary institution. Only time will tell.
2) Substructure v. superstructure. Theories of institutional economics teach us that outcomes are a product of many institutional layers, of which formal institutions are merely one. Informal institutions, such as norms, values, and personal networks, matter just as much as formal ones in determining outcomes. In Marxist language, substructure determines superstructure, not vice versa. Russia is sometimes referred as a country with a dual power structure – on the one hand, there are the formal institutions of the state; on the other hand, there are the networks which operate outside the formal institutions. The latter are perhaps just as important as the former. At the same time, Russia, like any other country, is guided by a definite set of norms and values, which evolve over time but are not immediately transformed by superficial institutional change. And then, there is the substructure of property relations which, according to the likes of Tony Wood and Grigory Yavlinsky, is what really determines the workings of Russian government. Tweaking constitutional arrangements isn’t going to change any of these underlying dynamics, at least not immediately. Outcomes may, therefore, remain largely the same (by way of comparison, pre-Maidan Ukraine flitted back and forth between parliamentary and presidential systems without much obvious structural change resulting). Against this, one can argue that formal institutions do, over time, have an impact on informal ones, perhaps in the way suggested in the paragraph above. Again, only time will tell, but I have some doubts that fiddling with the superstructure in the manner proposed will make a huge difference to the substructure.
3) United and efficient government. All states find it difficult to enact the ‘whole of government’ approach, in which all parts of the state work together towards common goals. Russia is no exception. Different parts of the state often work at cross-purposes. The formalization of the role of the State Council seems to be designed to tackle this problem. Perhaps it will improve matters. But perhaps not. In a parliamentary system, the role of unifying government belongs to the cabinet (‘a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the state to the executive part of the state,’ as Bagehot put it). Why create a separate State Council to do this job? Instead of unifying government, the proposed constitutional changes seem to be dividing it. It’s not obvious to me why this will be more efficient.
4) Liberal democracy? The general consensus seems to be that devolving power to the legislature is a move in the direction of democracy. That’s arguable. A parliament is not inherently more democratic than an elected president – in the sense of being accountable, and responsive, to the people. Division of powers is, however, a tenet of liberalism, so the question then arises whether the result will be something more obviously liberal. Again, I have my doubts. My sense of Russian government is that the executive is rather more liberally-inclined than the legislature. Insofar as there are still ‘systemic liberals’, they are to be found within the economic institutions of the state not the Duma. Perhaps this will change in the future, but I’m not so sure. Parliaments are also perhaps less willing to engage in radical reform than autocrats. There’s a reason why 19th century liberal-conservatives (Boris Chicherin et al.) opposed representative government – they believed that reform required a strong, centralized power. That is how reform has always come in Russia. A more parliamentary system might be the death-knell for the kind of ‘structural reforms’ liberals say that Russia badly needs. At the same time, the affirmation of the supremacy of the Russian constitution over international law is hardly something that most liberals would endorse, given that it’s so clearly targeted at limiting the influence of international human rights norms.
5) The devil’s in the details. It’s one thing for Putin to propose constitutional changes; it’s another to see the exact form these changes will take. In an interesting article on the website Russkaia Ideia, Oleg Denisov notes that Chapters 1 (fundamentals of the system), 2 (rights and freedoms), and 9 (amendments) of the Russia constitution can’t be amended by a vote of the Federal Assembly, but require the summoning of a Constitutional Assembly and the writing of a whole new constitution. Some of Putin’s proposals would appear to affect Chapters 1 & 2. Of course, one can imagine ways in which this could be ignored, by amending other articles and pretending that the changes don’t affect Chapters 1 & 2. Still, Denisov’s analysis shows that there are some practical difficulties ahead, and a lot we still don’t know about how the constitution will be amended in reality. As always, the devil lies in the details.
Putting this all together, the most that I can conclude is that Russia has entered into a period of uncertainty. The changes that Putin has set in motion could result in a more decentralized, efficient, liberal and democratic form of government. Or they could produce more inefficiency and push Russia in an even more conservative direction. Or, they could end up leaving everything pretty much as it is. It could be much ado about nothing. As I said repeatedly in my interviews, ‘On verra’.