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Myth of Absolute Power

In both Russia and the West, most analysts portray Russia's political system as an authoritarian regime. According to this view, the executive branch of government dictates state policy. Other institutions of the state do not matter, because they are too weak either to make policy or constrain the all-powerful presidency. The traditional components of a liberal democracy -- the separation of powers between the president and the parliament, a party system, federalism, the rule of law, independent media and a civil society -- are all missing in Russia. Unconstrained by the rules and ways of democracy, Russia's president and his government are free to do whatever they want.

Somebody should tell First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. As the "privatization tsar," the "architect of market reform" and the "mastermind of Yeltsin's re-election campaign," Chubais should be in a position to manipulate this super-presidential system to serve his policy agenda. Yet Chubais' series of political setbacks during the last year demonstrate that the Russian regime is not a dictatorship.

On the contrary, power within the Russian state is diffuse; informal checks and balances do exist; and the federal government has little capacity to execute anything at all. Chubais' policy failures over the last year should serve as a powerful correction to the myth of Russian dictatorship.

Perhaps Chubais himself believed in the myth of Russian authoritarianism. If so, he grossly miscalculated.

?Federalism: One of Chubais' first big setbacks earlier in the year was his failure to remove Primorsky Krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. Few doubt that Nazdratenko is one of the most corrupt and authoritarian regional bosses in Russia. Consequently, when Chubais relaunched his campaign to oust Nazdratenko after the 1996 presidential elections, the governor looked like an easy target. After all, if Chubais could oust former presidential chief bodyguard Alexander Korzkakov and first deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets, he surely could have Nazdratenko's head.

But he failed for one simple reason: Unlike Korzhakov and Soskovets, Nazdratenko was an elected official. Russia's other heads of administration stood unanimously in defense of their elected peer. In rallying to Nazdratenko's cause, other elected regional leaders demonstrated for the first time in Russia's volatile post-communist history that they were prepared to self-enforce the principle of federalism and limited central authority. They won and Chubais lost.

?Executive-legislative relations: Chubais and the Russian government also have proved unable to enact several critical economic reform policies. Although de jure endowed with tremendous executive decree power, the Russian government has opted to implement these new measures through the legislative process. Key initiatives -- including a new tax code, amendments to the production sharing agreement, a law on land privatization, pension reform and a new program on housing subsidies -- have all been delayed through State Duma inaction. Even the 1998 budget has not yet been approved and may not be until Chubais himself resigns.

Regarding political issues, the federal government has failed to deliver on the Start II nuclear disarmament treaty and proved unable to block the passage of a draconian religious law. If the executive branch is so powerful and the Duma does not matter, then why has the first deputy prime minster and the Russian government proved so slow in pursuing these vitally needed reforms?

?Independent press: Chubais' third and greatest setback of the year has been in the realm of personnel policy within the executive. After a well-respected investigative journalist, Alexander Minkin, reported that Chubais and several of his close associates received $90,000 "advances" for writing chapters to a book on privatization, three of these associates immediately lost their senior government jobs. Chubais himself has lost his position as finance minister. Other senior officials also may lose their jobs as a result of this scandal. In this case, Chubais' nemesis was a free and independent press.

While the newspaper that ran the article on the bribes is owned by a Chubais enemy, Minkin reported the truth.

These constraints on Chubais are not entirely the result of democratic institutions. In part, Chubais has failed because the government in which he serves is divided. In part, the executive branch has suffered this series of setbacks because the chief executive, Boris Yeltsin, has not been an active player.

But Kremlin court politics is only part of the story. Such constraints on political authority only occur in democracies, not dictatorships. Stalin could remove any regional head he wanted; former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet did not have his pension reform plan blocked by parliament; and no muckraking journalist has ever toppled senior officials in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's government.

While by no means a consolidated, liberal democracy, Russia's political system is also not an authoritarian regime. Just ask Chubais.

Michael McFaul is an assistant professor of political science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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