The Constitution and Government Structure

Russia Table of Contents

During 1992-93 Yeltsin had argued that the existing, heavily amended 1978 constitution of Russia was obsolete and self-contradictory and that Russia required a new constitution granting the president greater power. This assertion led to the submission and advocacy of rival constitutional drafts drawn up by the legislative and executive branches. The parliament's failure to endorse a compromise was an important factor in Yeltsin's dissolution of the body in September 1993. Yeltsin then used his presidential powers to form a sympathetic constitutional assembly, which quickly produced a draft constitution providing for a strong executive, and to shape the outcome of the December 1993 referendum on Russia's new basic law. The referendum vote resulted in approval by 58.4 percent of Russia's registered voters. The announced 54.8 percent turnout met the requirement that at least 50 percent of registered voters participate in the referendum.

The 1993 constitution declares Russia a democratic, federative, law-based state with a republican form of government. State power is divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Diversity of ideologies and religions is sanctioned, and a state or compulsory ideology may not be adopted. The right to a multiparty political system is upheld. The content of laws must be made public before they take effect, and they must be formulated in accordance with international law and principles. Russian is proclaimed the state language, although the republics of the federation are allowed to establish their own state languages for use alongside Russian (see The Russian Language, ch. 4).

The Executive Branch

The 1993 constitution created a dual executive consisting of a president and prime minister, but the president is the dominant figure. Russia's strong presidency sometimes is compared with that of Charles de Gaulle (in office 1958-69) in the French Fifth Republic. The constitution spells out many prerogatives specifically, but some powers enjoyed by Yeltsin were developed in an ad hoc manner.

Presidential Powers

Russia's president determines the basic direction of Russia's domestic and foreign policy and represents the Russian state within the country and in foreign affairs. The president appoints and recalls Russia's ambassadors upon consultation with the legislature, accepts the credentials and letters of recall of foreign representatives, conducts international talks, and signs international treaties. A special provision allowed Yeltsin to complete the term prescribed to end in June 1996 and to exercise the powers of the new constitution, although he had been elected under a different constitutional order.

In the 1996 presidential election campaign, some candidates called for reducing or eliminating the presidency, criticizing its powers as dictatorial. Yeltsin defended his presidential powers, claiming that Russians desire "a vertical power structure and a strong hand" and that a parliamentary government would result in indecisive talk rather than action.

Several prescribed powers put the president in a superior position vis--vis the legislature. The president has broad authority to issue decrees and directives that have the force of law without legislative review, although the constitution notes that they must not contravene that document or other laws. Under certain conditions, the president may dissolve the State Duma, the lower house of parliament (as a whole, now called the Federal Assembly). The president has the prerogatives of scheduling referendums (a power previously reserved to the parliament), submitting draft laws to the State Duma, and promulgating federal laws.

The executive-legislative crisis of the fall of 1993 prompted Yeltsin to emplace constitutional obstacles to legislative removal of the president. Under the 1993 constitution, if the president commits "grave crimes" or treason, the State Duma may file impeachment charges with the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council. These charges must be confirmed by a ruling of the Supreme Court that the president's actions constitute a crime and by a ruling of the Constitutional Court that proper procedures in filing charges have been followed (see The Judiciary, this ch.). The charges then must be adopted by a special commission of the State Duma and confirmed by at least two-thirds of State Duma deputies. A two-thirds vote of the Federation Council is required for removal of the president. If the Federation Council does not act within three months, the charges are dropped. If the president is removed from office or becomes unable to exercise power because of serious illness, the prime minister is to temporarily assume the president's duties; a presidential election then must be held within three months. The constitution does not provide for a vice president, and there is no specific procedure for determining whether the president is able to carry out his duties.

The president is empowered to appoint the prime minister to chair the Government (called the cabinet or the council of ministers in other countries), with the consent of the State Duma. The president chairs meetings of the Government, which he also may dismiss in its entirety. Upon the advice of the prime minister, the president can appoint or remove Government members, including the deputy prime ministers. The president submits candidates to the State Duma for the post of chairman of the Russian Central Bank (RCB) and may propose that the State Duma dismiss the chairman (see Banking and Finance, ch. 6). In addition, the president submits candidates to the Federation Council for appointment as justices of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Superior Court of Arbitration, as well as candidates for the office of procurator general, Russia's chief law enforcement officer (see The Procuracy, ch. 10). The president also appoints justices of federal district courts.

Informal Powers and Power Centers

Many of the president's powers are related to the incumbent's undisputed leeway in forming an administration and hiring staff. The presidential administration is composed of several competing, overlapping, and vaguely delineated hierarchies that historically have resisted efforts at consolidation. In early 1996, Russian sources reported the size of the presidential apparatus in Moscow and the localities at more than 75,000 people, most of them employees of state-owned enterprises directly under presidential control. This structure is similar to, but several times larger than, the top-level apparatus of the Soviet-era Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU--see Glossary).

Former first deputy prime minister Anatoliy Chubays was appointed chief of the presidential administration (chief of staff) in July 1996. Chubays replaced Nikolay Yegorov, a hard-line associate of deposed Presidential Security Service chief Aleksandr Korzhakov. Yegorov had been appointed in early 1996, when Yeltsin reacted to the strong showing of antireform factions in the legislative election by purging reformers from his administration. Yeltsin now ordered Chubays, who had been included in that purge, to reduce the size of the administration and the number of departments overseeing the functions of the ministerial apparatus. The six administrative departments in existence at that time dealt with citizens' rights, domestic and foreign policy, state and legal matters, personnel, analysis, and oversight, and Chubays inherited a staff estimated at 2,000 employees. Chubays also received control over a presidential advisory group with input on the economy, national security, and other matters. Reportedly that group had competed with Korzhakov's security service for influence in the Yeltsin administration.

Another center of power in the presidential administration is the Security Council, which was created by statute in mid-1992 (see The Security Council, ch. 8). The 1993 constitution describes the council as formed and headed by the president and governed by statute. Since its formation, it apparently has gradually lost influence in competition with other power centers in the presidential administration. However, the June 1996 appointment of former army general and presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed' to head the Security Council improved prospects for the organization's standing. In July 1996, a presidential decree assigned the Security Council a wide variety of new missions. The decree's description of the Security Council's consultative functions was especially vague and wide-ranging, although it positioned the head of the Security Council directly subordinate to the president. As had been the case previously, the Security Council was required to hold meetings at least once a month (see The President, ch. 8).

Other presidential support services include the Control Directorate (in charge of investigating official corruption), the Administrative Affairs Directorate, the Presidential Press Service, and the Protocol Directorate. The Administrative Affairs Directorate controls state dachas, sanatoriums, automobiles, office buildings, and other perquisites of high office for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, a function that includes management of more than 200 state industries with about 50,000 employees. The Committee on Operational Questions, until June 1996 chaired by antireformist Oleg Soskovets, has been described as a "government within a government." Also attached to the presidency are more than two dozen consultative commissions and extrabudgetary "funds."

The president also has extensive powers over military policy. As the commander in chief of the armed forces, the president approves defense doctrine, appoints and removes the high command of the armed forces, and confers higher military ranks and awards (see Command Structure, ch. 9). The president is empowered to declare national or regional states of martial law, as well as states of emergency. In both cases, both chambers of the parliament must be notified immediately. The Federation Council, the upper chamber, has the power to confirm or reject such a decree. The regime of martial law is defined by federal law. The circumstances and procedures for the president to declare a state of emergency are more specifically outlined in federal law than in the constitution. In practice, the Constitutional Court ruled in 1995 that the president has wide leeway in responding to crises within Russia, such as lawlessness in the separatist Republic of Chechnya, and that Yeltsin's action in Chechnya did not require a formal declaration of a state of emergency (see Movements Toward Sovereignty, ch. 4; Chechnya, ch. 9; Security Operations in Chechnya, ch. 10). In 1994 Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Ingushetia and North Ossetia, two republics beset by intermittent ethnic conflict.

Presidential Elections

The constitution sets few requirements for presidential elections, deferring in many matters to other provisions established by law. The presidential term is set at four years, and the president may serve only two terms. A candidate for president must be a citizen of Russia, at least thirty-five years of age, and a resident of the country for at least ten years. If a president becomes unable to continue in office because of health problems, resignation, impeachment, or death, a presidential election is to be held not more than three months later. In such a situation, the Federation Council is empowered to set the election date.

The Law on Presidential Elections, ratified in May 1995, establishes the legal basis for presidential elections. Based on a draft submitted by Yeltsin's office, the new law included many provisions already contained in the Russian Republic's 1990 election law; alterations included the reduction in the number of signatures required to register a candidate from 2 million to 1 million. The law, which set rigorous standards for fair campaign and election procedures, was hailed by international analysts as a major step toward democratization. Under the law, parties, blocs, and voters' groups register with the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and designate their candidates. These organizations then are permitted to begin seeking the 1 million signatures needed to register their candidates; no more than 7 percent of the signatures may come from a single federal jurisdiction. The purpose of the 7 percent requirement is to promote candidacies with broad territorial bases and eliminate those supported by only one city or ethnic enclave.

The law requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters participate in order for a presidential election to be valid. In State Duma debate over the legislation, some deputies had advocated a minimum of 25 percent (which was later incorporated into the electoral law covering the State Duma), warning that many Russians were disillusioned with voting and would not turn out. To make voter participation easier, the law required one voting precinct for approximately every 3,000 voters, with voting allowed until late at night. The conditions for absentee voting were eased, and portable ballot boxes were to be made available on demand. Strict requirements were established for the presence of election observers, including emissaries from all participating parties, blocs, and groups, at polling places and local electoral commissions to guard against tampering and to ensure proper tabulation.

The Law on Presidential Elections requires that the winner receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote (a highly probable result because of multiple candidacies), the top two vote-getters must face each other in a runoff election. Once the results of the first round are known, the runoff election must be held within fifteen days. A traditional provision allows voters to check off "none of the above," meaning that a candidate in a two-person runoff might win without attaining a majority. Another provision of the election law empowers the CEC to request that the Supreme Court ban a candidate from the election if that candidate advocates a violent transformation of the constitutional order or the integrity of the Russian Federation.

The presidential election of 1996 was a major episode in the struggle between Yeltsin and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunisticheskaya partiya Rossiyskoy Federatsii--KPRF), which sought to oust Yeltsin from office and return to power. Yeltsin had banned the Communist Party of the Russian Republic for its central role in the August 1991 coup against the Gorbachev government. As a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat of the banned party, Gennadiy Zyuganov had worked hard to gain its relegalization. Despite Yeltsin's objections, the Constitutional Court cleared the way for the Russian communists to reemerge as the KPRF, headed by Zyuganov, in February 1993. Yeltsin temporarily banned the party again in October 1993 for its role in the Supreme Soviet's just-concluded attempt to overthrow his administration. Beginning in 1993, Zyuganov also led efforts by KPRF deputies to impeach Yeltsin. After the KPRF's triumph in the December 1995 legislative elections, Yeltsin announced that he would run for reelection with the main purpose of safeguarding Russia from a communist restoration.

Although there was speculation that losing parties in the December 1995 election might choose not to nominate presidential candidates, in fact dozens of citizens both prominent and obscure announced their candidacies. After the gathering and review of signature lists, the CEC validated eleven candidates, one of whom later dropped out.

In the opinion polls of early 1996, Yeltsin trailed far behind most of the other candidates; his popularity rating was below 10 percent for a prolonged period. However, a last-minute, intense campaign featuring heavy television exposure, speeches throughout Russia promising increased state expenditures for a wide variety of interest groups, and campaign-sponsored concerts boosted Yeltsin to a 3 percent plurality over Zyuganov in the first round. At that point, Yeltsin took the tactically significant step of appointing first-round presidential candidate Aleksandr Lebed', who had placed third behind Yeltsin and Zyuganov, as head of the Security Council. Yeltsin followed the appointment of Lebed' as the president's top adviser on national security by dismissing several top hard-line members of his entourage who were widely blamed for human rights violations in Chechnya and other mistakes. Despite his virtual disappearance from public view for health reasons shortly thereafter, Yeltsin was able to sustain his central message that Russia should move forward rather than return to its communist past. Zyuganov failed to mount an energetic or convincing second campaign, and three weeks after the first phase of the election, Yeltsin easily defeated his opponent, 54 percent to 40 percent (see table 24, Appendix).

Turnout in the first round was high, with about 70 percent of 108.5 million voters participating. Total turnout in the second round was nearly the same as in the first round. A contingent of almost 1,000 international observers judged the election to be largely fair and democratic, as did the CEC.

Most observers in Russia and elsewhere concurred that the election boosted democratization in Russia, and many asserted that reforms in Russia had become irreversible. Yeltsin had strengthened the institution of regularly contested elections when he rejected calls by business organizations and other groups and some of his own officials to cancel or postpone the balloting because of the threat of violence. The high turnout indicated that voters had confidence that their ballots would count, and the election went forward without incident. The democratization process also was bolstered by Yeltsin's willingness to change key personnel and policies in response to public protests and by his unprecedented series of personal campaign appearances throughout Russia.

The Government (Cabinet)

The constitution prescribes that the Government of Russia, which corresponds to the Western cabinet structure, consist of a prime minister (chairman of the Government), deputy prime ministers, and federal ministers and their ministries and departments. Within one week of appointment by the president and approval by the State Duma, the prime minister must submit to the president nominations for all subordinate Government positions, including deputy prime ministers and federal ministers. The prime minister carries out administration in line with the constitution and laws and presidential decrees. The ministries of the Government, which numbered twenty-four in mid-1996, execute credit and monetary policies and defense, foreign policy, and state security functions; ensure the rule of law and respect for human and civil rights; protect property; and take measures against crime. If the Government issues implementing decrees and directives that are at odds with legislation or presidential decrees, the president may rescind them.

The Government formulates the state budget, submits it to the State Duma, and issues a report on its implementation. In late 1994, the parliament successfully demanded that the Government begin submitting quarterly reports on budget expenditures and adhere to other guidelines on budgetary matters, although the parliament's budgetary powers are limited. If the State Duma rejects a draft budget from the Government, the budget is submitted to a conciliation commission including members from both branches.

Besides the ministries, in 1996 the executive branch included eleven state committees and forty-six state services and agencies, ranging from the State Space Agency (Glavkosmos) to the State Committee for Statistics (Goskomstat). There were also myriad agencies, boards, centers, councils, commissions, and committees. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's personal staff was reported to number about 2,000 in 1995.

Chernomyrdin, who had been appointed prime minister in late 1992 to appease antireform factions, established a generally smooth working relationship with Yeltsin. Chernomyrdin proved adept at conciliating hostile domestic factions and at presenting a positive image of Russia in negotiations with other nations. However, as Yeltsin's standing with public opinion plummeted in 1995, Chernomyrdin became one of many Government officials who received public blame from the president for failures in the Yeltsin administration. As part of his presidential campaign, Yeltsin threatened to replace the Chernomyrdin Government if it failed to address pressing social welfare problems in Russia. After the mid-1996 presidential election, however, Yeltsin announced that he would nominate Chernomyrdin to head the new Government.

The Parliament
The Judiciary
Local and Regional Government
Political Parties and Legislative Elections

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress