A Military in Charge of Itself: Civilian Control Is a Russian Myth

Article excerpt

Conclusions

* The Russian military is presently freer from civilian control than at any time since 1918. Executive and legislative oversight is extremely limited, existing at a level that is far less pervasive than that of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

* The failure of the Russian legislature (both the Supreme Soviet that existed before October 1993, and the present Federal Assembly) to gain and exercise significant oversight authority is attributable to President Yeltsin's strong resistance to the idea--which is based on his belief that legislative oversight interferes with his authority.

* President Yeltsin has exercised little actual control over the conduct of the military's administrative and operational affairs, relying heavily on the uniformed military leadership in these matters. Yeltsin's hesitancy to get involved in military matters (such as the "reform" issue) undoubtedly stems from the fact that he recognizes the Defense Ministry's potential role as a "kingmaker" in Russian politics and wants to maintain good relations with it.

Birth of Russian Military Autonomy

Within five months of Russia's gaining independence from the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin had to form the country's first Ministry of Defense. He faced the choice of founding it on his own State Committee for Defense Issues, which strongly advocated reforms that, among other things, would have undercut the militarized economy inherited from the Soviet era; or, on the former Soviet Defense Ministry that had for years thrived within the same Soviet bureaucracy that Yeltsin had campaigned against. Even though the State Committee had also supported Yeltsin in his arduous and highly dangerous struggle against the former Soviet central government, Yeltsin turned his back on it and chose the Soviet Defense Ministry as the basis of Russia's "new" defense establishment. He also, to the dismay of his reformist supporters, chose an active duty military officer as the first Minister of Defense instead of a civilian.

Now, President Yeltsin's decisions and subsequent actions have resulted in the Russian Ministry of Defense being, for all practical purposes, free of civilian oversight. The legislature and prime minister have been stripped of oversight power and the president, himself, does not appear to exercise any.

The End Of The Communist Party's Control

The demise of the Soviet Union--and the prospects of having the large Russian military accountable to a democratically elected civilian leadership--was a cause for celebration and relief in the West. However, the military leadership had a different view. Prior to August 1991, the Communist Party had exercised strict political control over the armed forces for more than 70 years. The Soviet military surely viewed itself as having broken free of its long-time political watchdog when President Yeltsin decreed the Communist Party to be illegal and the Soviet state was subsequently abolished. It is highly unlikely that the military leadership welcomed a return to a position of subservience--even if the new watchdog achieved its position of oversight through democratic means. After seven decades of suffering under the aegis of the Communist Party, why would it want to suffer under anything else?

Executive Control

The Russian Constitution made the Minister of Defense subordinate to the Prime Minister and accountable to the collective membership of the Council of Ministers. This arrangement, however, was short-lived. President Yeltsin decreed that the Minister of Defense was directly subordinate to the President and did not have to report to either acting Prime Minister Gaidar or, later, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. The issue of oversight by the Prime Minister was, therefore, resolved almost before it was raised.

The military also wanted to be free from control by the chief executive. From its point of view, however, President Yeltsin's reluctance to challenge the military by either appointing a civilian minister or establishing a ministry based on reformers, must have sent a clear--and welcomed--signal that the President would not be a major obstacle to the military becoming free of political oversight from any quarter. …