Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Committee,

It is an honor and a privilege to be asked to testify before this Committee. Let me address the issues I was asked to comment on in the letter of invitation signed by Senator Lugar.

Developments in Russia and Their Potential Impact on the Future of the U.S.-Russia Relationship

Political reform

Russia has a tsarist political system, in which all major decisions are taken by one institution, the presidency. In fact, this is the only functioning political institution in the country. Separation of powers, enshrined in the 1993 Constitution, does not exist in reality. On the contrary, unity of power and authority has become the new state-building doctrine. All other federal institutions (i.e. the parliament, the cabinet, the high courts) are dependent on, and de facto subordinate to the President and his private office (collectively referred to as the Kremlin). The tradition is back in the saddle.

Over the last six years, the degree of power centralization has grown dramatically. Regional legislation has been brought in conformity with the federal Constitution and federal laws. The Federation Council (upper chamber) has ceased to be the regional leaders’ club and has become a Russian version of the German Bundesrat, with its members (who proudly call themselves senators) appointed, and recalled, by the regional authorities. The governors of Russia’s 88 regions have lost their independence rooted in direct elections, and are now hired and fired by the Kremlin. Single-mandate constituencies in the elections to the State Duma (lower chamber) are being phased out. From the next election (December 2007) on, only party lists will compete, with the entrance bar set very high (7% of the popular vote). The reform of the judiciary has not resulted in expanding its independence. The courts are even more dependent on the authorities, and the State Prosecutor’s office has become the principal political instrument in the hands of the Kremlin for dealing with its adversaries.

While authoritarian and over-centralized, the Russian political system rests on the acquiescence of the governed. Vladimir Putin has remained popular throughout the six years he has been in power. Above all, he is credited with reinstating stability lacking under both Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. For this democratically-legitimized authoritarian system to continue to operate in the current mode, Putin’s successor needs to be genuinely popular.

Managing succession under such conditions is extremely difficult. All indicators point to Putin’s desire to step aside when his term is up (spring of 2008) and let a new man take over. Yet, both informal successors (first deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov who is also a deputy PM) have obvious problems with electoral appeal. Thus, Putin may make an 11th hour surprise choice in favor of a lesser-known figure who would be able to galvanize support for the supreme authority and allow it to sail smoothly through the succession straits.

There can be no guarantee of a smooth sailing, of course. It is true that political opposition in Russia is no match for the authorities. The Communist party, Yeltsin’s former nemesis, has been much reduced in influence and effectively locked up in a niche of elderly nostalgics. The liberals and democrats remain pathetically disunited and are growing increasingly marginal. Nationalists represent a more serious challenge. In the past, the Kremlin was been able to tame them with the help of the super-loyal Mr. Zhirinovsky. However, a recent project to found a pro-Kremlin nationalist party, Rodina (Motherland), led by Dmitri Rogozin, had to be terminated when the party threatened to spin out of control and become a real opposition force. Currently, the Kremlin’s strategy is to give a new lease on political life to Mr. Zhirinovsky; to co-opt the more conformist nationalist elements within the ruling bloc, United Russia; and to present extreme nationalists as a “clear and present danger” (to replace the now emasculated Communists) which can only be effectively dealt with by the Kremlin itself.

It is true that ultra-nationalism and populism are the biggest threat to Russia’s domestic development and to Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, starting with its neighbors. The problem is the Kremlin’s own political effectiveness.

All the unity of power notwithstanding, the Kremlin itself is far from united. The constellation of clans, which could be visibly represented by the many towers of the Kremlin fortress, is never static. There have always been different interests (including some very material ones), different instincts (depending on the people’s past experiences), and different views about  the way the world goes and the way Russia should be run. While the President reigns, he acts as an arbiter. As he is preparing to hand over power, the situation becomes highly dynamic.

Grosso modo, there are two competing groups whose membership does not neatly coincide with the popular notions of the siloviks vs the liberals. Both factions agree on the need for a strong authority at home and a great-power policy abroad. They differ (apart from their private business interests) on the degree of bureaucratic control over the economy and the assertiveness and unilateralism in Russia’s foreign policy. Thus, it is the internal rivalries and clashes, whether within the Presidential administration, the cabinet, or the ruling bloc as a whole, rather than open political competition, that is likely to mark and shape Russia’s politics in the near and even medium term.

The implications for the United States and indeed for all other countries are as follows. One has to accept the reality of a highly centralized political system with a sole decision-maker. One needs to acknowledge the weakness of the political forces who seek to modernize the system by bringing the competition into the public domain and turning the presently undivided “Authority” into a combination of an accountable government and a professional civil service. One has to guard against the (still distant) possibility of ultra-nationalists and populists taking over the state machine and pushing Russia down the path of absolute state domination at home and revanchism abroad.

Yet, Russia, seen historically, is not going in the wrong direction. Rather, it has returned to the path of natural development which she was forced to abandon by the Bolsheviks. It was never serious to expect Russia to emerge as a liberal democracy after three quarters of a century of Communist rule. By the same token, to regard Yeltsin’s Russia as a democracy was wishful thinking. Russia was freer, and more pluralist, and the state was very weak, but it was not democratic. In future, there will be no cutting corners. For a number of reasons, Russia’s modernization can not proceed through integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, as it did in Central Europe and can do in Eastern Europe. Russia would have to perform that feat on its own. There are many factors working against it. There are a few, however, two working for. One is the factor of money, i.e. indigenous capitalist development. The other one is the country’s openness to the outside world.

For the full text of Dmitri Trenin's testimony, please click on the link to the right.