Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Boxing Russia: Executive-Legislative Powers and the Categorization of Russia's Regime Type

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Boxing Russia: Executive-Legislative Powers and the Categorization of Russia's Regime Type

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper (1) examines the debate over the categorization of the Russian political system as "semi-presidential" (as many, especially comparativists, argue) or "super-presidential" (as perhaps the majority of Russian area experts argue). To approach a resolution of this debate, the article focuses on the interpretation of the relevant articles in the Russian constitution, presents practical comparisons with unambiguously semi-presidential systems (such as those in France and Poland), and delves into the issue of executive cohabitation between president and prime minister as the sine qua non of semi-presidentialism. To that end, the Yeltsin-Primakov dyad is examined in some detail. At its base level, the article rejects the notion that Russia since 1993 is a semi-presidential system of the French or Polish variety, since, it is argued, (1) the possibility of bona fide cohabitation is not present under Russia's constitutional rules, (2) the Prime Minister and cabinet are ultimately not responsible to the State Duma, and (3) the Prime Minister is not president-independent. Rather, viewing Russia as essentially a super-presidential system, though not without its own problems, best captures the nature of politics in the country.

Keywords: cohabitation, executive-legislative relations, Russia, semi-presidentialism


Since the adoption of the Russian constitution in December 1993, much debate has arisen over attempts to categorize the new regime among the familiar forms known to exist in the democratic world. Institutionally, is Russia a presidential system, a "super-presidential" system, or a "semi-presidential" system? While Russia is among a group of countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Israel, and Finland that seem to defy typological consensus, the ambiguity over the Russian case is perhaps a bit more peculiar.

On one level, debates about the institutional makeup of the ambiguous cases listed above usually center on two choices: Whether the country in question is parliamentary or semi-presidential, with the answer hinging on one's appreciation of the actual role of the head of state. By that standard, for example, Ireland is generally categorized as parliamentary, the direct popular election of the Irish president notwithstanding.

For Russia, however, the range of assertions bridges a wider institutional gap. Some view Russia as "super-presidential," meaning that political power between the executive and the legislature is skewed overwhelmingly in favor of the former, to the detriment of the democratic credentials of the system. Others, however, noting the presence under the constitution of both an elected president and a "prime minister," (2) consider Russia to be a "semi-presidential" analog to France or Poland. Still others discount the role of the "prime minister" to that of little more than a presidential chief-of-staff, leading them to see Russia as a presidential system more similar to the United States than to France or Poland. (3) Finally, others, dissatisfied with the broadness of the "semi-presidential" category, have generated intermediary categories: "premier-presidentialism" and "president-parliamentarism" (with Russia falling into the latter). (4) Unlike the ambiguous cases cited above, in which the debate seems to revolve around parliamentarism and (some variety of) semi-presidentialiam, in the case of Russia the argument more precisely hinges on whether or not the Russian constitution of 1993 created a super-presidential or (some variety of) semi-presidential system.

At a second level, there seems to be a noticeable predictability in the type of analysts who are more likely to place Russia into one of the polar choices. That is, Russian area specialists are more inclined to see Russia as a super-presidential system, while comparativists who focus less on countries than they do on regime-types tend to view Russia as semi-presidential. …

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