Presidential Power and Democratic Stability under the Russian Constitution: A Comparative Analysis

Article excerpt

For social scientists, one of the consequences of the so-called third wave of democratization(1) that has taken place over the past two decades or so has been the revitalization of structural or neoinstitutional approaches to politics.(2) With a great number of states during this period experiencing transitions away from various types of authoritarian rule and toward more explicitly democratic systems of governance, students of these transitions to democracy have focused increasing attention on the consequences of institutional choices, constitution building, electoral sequencing, and other structural factors with a view to determine the impact of specific institutional arrangements on the long-term prospects for the consolidation of these "uncertain democracies." Given the temporal development of this third wave of democratization, the bulk of the original research on transitions was dominated by students of Latin America and, to a lesser extent, southern Europe. As a result, those interested in the political processes of "late" third-wave democratizers (e.g., Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states) have looked to the tentative conclusions of those familiar with such processes in "early" third-wave transitions.

This article falls squarely into these two traditions. First, it examines aspects of the transition from communist authoritarianism in Russia from a decidedly institutional perspective. Specifically, it joins the extant debate among students of transitions from authoritarianism on the relative desirability of presidentialism and parliamentarianism as the defining structural arrangement for uncertain democracies. This debate is an ongoing one in part because, as Shugart and Carey explain, while the bulk of the scholarly literature on transitions has come down on the side of parliamentarianism as the preferred democratic institutional arrangement for transition states, "nearly all the new democracies in the 1970s and 1980s ... have had elected presidents with varying degrees of political authority."(3) This trend has continued as the late third-wave new democracies emerging in East and Central Europe and the former USSR have also tended to create systems that, while perhaps not purely presidential in structure, do entail significant presidential power. In the Russia case, this proclivity toward strong executive power is perhaps most pronounced. Indeed, one student of the December 1993 Russian constitution has described the system it defines as "superpresidential."(4) As such, Russia is arguably a critical case for shedding additional light on the current executive-legislative powers debate.

Second, this article attempts to be explicitly comparative in focus, drawing as it does on the democratic transition literature, in general, and on a particular framework for the evaluation of presidential authority in uncertain democracies, more specifically. In each instance, then, the analysis of the Russian case that follows borrows heavily from the scholarly literature that was developed as a response to democratic transitions outside the communist world. While such a stance vis-a-vis the postcommunist transitions is no longer overly controversial and is based on the notion that transitions from authoritarianism in Latin American and southern Europe may at some level be instructive to students interested in a similar process in postcommunist transitions.(5) an additional aim of this exercise is to suggest appropriate modifications of the theoretical literature.

Presidents and Parliaments in Uncertain Democracies

Most students of postauthoritarian transitions have concluded that uncertain democracies are best served by the adoption of parliamentary forms of government. This argument has rested on two pillars--one positive and one negative. First, proponents of parliamentarianism have argued that the system is inherently more democratic in that the representative function of the government is maximized, as compared to the greater degree of separation between the electorate and a powerful president. …