Is There a Separation of Powers in Russia?

On January 9, 2001, Thomas Remington, Professor of Political Science at Emory University, spoke at the Endowment about the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of the Russian government. Remington discussed in detail how the Russian Duma negotiates with the president, who is given wide-ranging powers by the constitution. We provide below a summary of his remarks and the discussion period.

"Separation of powers is considered to be a cornerstone of the Russian Constitution of 1993," said Remington. While similar in some ways to the US Constitution, the Russian Constitution allows the president an even more dominant role in the political system, giving him the right to issue decrees. "Given the asymmetry in the constitution, many observers have dismissed other political institutions in this framework as irrelevant," Remington stated. "Obviously, a constitution is never a full guide to political relations," he added, "particularly in Russia, given its tradition of personalized power relations."

The Russian President: Constitutional Power vs. Actual Power
Remington gave an overview of the wide range of presidential powers. The Russian president can introduce legislation, issue decrees if the Duma does not pass his legislation, use a continuation budget if his budget is not passed, veto legislation that is passed by the Duma, and threaten the Duma with dissolution. Given this system, what limitations exist on the president's authority? Is he sometimes forced to negotiate with the Duma to get what he wants?
Remington argued that political limits that restrain the president's power do indeed exist in the Russian system. Noting the myriad of decrees Yeltsin issued while in office, Remington explained that the excessive use of decrees reduces their credibility-many of Yeltsin's were simply ignored. The Constitutional Court ultimately decides whether a law is in accordance with the constitution. In addition, while the president may benefit from threatening the Duma with dissolution, the political cost of such an action and the prospect of facing a new Duma perhaps more hostile than the old usually prevent such a drastic measure from being taken. Remington cited the example of Yeltsin in 1996, who, faced with poor showing in the polls, considered dissolving the Duma and canceling the presidential election. Anatoly Chubais, his close advisor, persuaded Yeltsin that the political consequences of such an action would be disastrous. Thus, while the president is given great power by the constitution, he in practice limits his power based on calculations of the political consequences of his actions. Finally, the Duma has enacted several laws to legally complicate its dissolution, if the president were to try to do so.

The Duma and the President
No political party or movement has ever enjoyed an absolute majority in the Russian Duma, Remington observed. Instead a "power sharing arrangement" is orchestrated in which the "median factions swing the vote," he explained. Currently, the group enjoying the median role is Unity, which is strongly pro-Kremlin. On most issues, political factions are able to negotiate to pass a given bill. The median faction can deadlock the Duma by strongly opposing a bill, as long as there is internal cohesion within the political party (Remington noted that Unity's members vote alike 92% of the time).
If the president and the Duma are on the same side of an issue, they will cooperate. Remington listed the Tax Code, Criminal Code, judicial reform, and the budget as areas where the current president and Duma have worked together to produce legislation that represents a compromise between the various political factions in the Duma. If the president and the Duma are in agreement, the president will sometimes issue a decree to set in motion a bill that the Duma will eventually pass, as has been the case with Putin's decisions on Chechnya.
On issues where the Duma and the president are in opposition, a compromise will generally result between the Duma and the president (usually in favor of the president). Remington observed that if the president issues a decree on an issue on which the Duma disagrees with him, the Duma will eventually move closer to the president's position to maintain influence. Remington offered the example of privatization, which went ahead despite protests from Communists. Today, some Communists in the Duma have accepted that privatization will take place, and have instead negotiated successfully to win greater oversight powers over the privatization process.
"In Russia we see evidence for a separation of powers agreement," concluded Remington. While the president is granted a wide range of powers, the Duma and the Constitutional Court do limit the extent to which the president can exercise these powers.

Discussion Period
When questioned on the extent to which the political negotiations within the Duma represented bargaining between different groups in society, Remington pointed out that although political parties still remain fragmented and are largely unable to draw on consistent public support, interest groups ensure that their needs are represented in the Duma. Interest groups participate at all levels of the Duma's political activity, including working groups, and sustain a constant lobbying effort. Remington emphasized that the Duma was a site for bargaining on more than just social issues, and characterized the newly created Audit Chamber as a potentially powerful "creature of Parliament" that the Duma could use to gain leverage.
Explaining why liberals in the Duma supported Putin's administrative reforms, which created a more centralized political structure, Remington argued that both conservatives and liberals considered the reforms to be necessary. In addition, he noted that liberals understood the probability for the abuse of federal power to be much less than the likelihood of abuse of power on the regional level. When asked if these administrative reforms were in line with the Russian Constitution, Remington said that in his opinion the reforms to this point were "not necessarily incompatible with the constitution." Many proposals for further reform are still being debated, including the reform of the Federation Council, and these will have to be examined.
Asked about possible areas of contention that the Duma may soon face, Remington said that clashes over the Land Code and the Labor Code are likely. It also remains to be seen how viable Unity will be as a political faction in the face of a controversial issue like land reform, since Unity has "no distinct political view besides opportunism," Remington added.

Summary by Erik Scott, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.