Russia is governed by an executive president and a two-house parliament (duma). This system, ushered in by the new constitution of 1993, has potential flaws in that the president and the parliament can (and do) both make laws and can effectively block each other’s actions. In practice, the president can usually get his way through issuing presidential decrees. During Yeltsin’s time this happened often. Putin has worked harmoniously with the Duma.
The president is the head of state and has broad powers. He or she appoints all government ministers, including the prime minister, who is effectively number two and who would assume the presidency should the president die or become incapacitated. The duma has to approve the president’s appointees, which can and has led to showdowns. Presidential elections are held every four years – the next one is due in 2004.
The dame’s upper house, the Federation Council (Sovet Federatsii), has 178 seats, occupied by two representatives from each of Russia’s 89 administrative districts, including small regions, autonomous areas and the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Representatives are the top officials from these areas and as such are not elected to this body (although Putin wants them to be in the future). It legislates the relationship between central government and the regions.
The lower house, the State Duma (Gosudarstvennaya Duma), oversees all legislation. Its 450 members are equally divided between representatives elected from single-member districts and those elected from party lists. Obviously this gives extra clout to the major parties, and efforts to replace its system of representation with a purely proportional system have been shunned. Elections are held every four years in the December preceding the presidential elections.
Although the Communist Party received the largest single share of the vote (24%) in the 1999 elections, it was not a convincing victory being only 1% more than the hastily formed pro-Putin (though not Putin’s) Unity Party headed by charismatic Emergencies Minister Sergey Shoygu, an ethnic Tyvan.
The third-place Fatherland-All Russia Party headed by the trio of ex-premier Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and Tatarstan president Mentimer Shaymiyev was in opposition to Putin at the time of elections when Primakov was still deemed one of the main presidential hopefuls. But after Putin became president it reconciled with Unity to the extent that in early 2002 these movements merged to form the United Russia Party. With two liberal, pro-Western parties also having sizable representation in the Duma, Putin was ensured a smooth passage of his re-form programme of laws in 2001 and 2002. The misleadingly named Liberal Democratic party headed by maverick right-winger Vladinir Zhirinovsky (who is nevertheless exnrmely pro-Putin), came fifth with only 6% d the vote.
After the Duma first convened, Unity and, the Communists created a kind of unholy alliance against Primakov (who was still Putin’s main rival) and the liberals and took must of key posts in parliamentary committees. Moderate Communist Gennady Seleznev became the chairman of the Duma. But once Unity merged with Fatherland-All Russia in early 2002, the posts were redistributed, with the liberals benefiting most. Seleznev was urged by angry comrades to resign, but he stayed and was subsequently spelled from the Communist Party, creating lie largest crisis in it since 1991.
Even though, according to opinion polls, he Communists remain the nation’s most popular party, in the American-style democracy that Russia now has, the president still matters much more than the parliament. According to rumors, Putin’s dream is that Russia evolves into a two-party system comprising United Russia and the liberal Union of Right Forces, headed by charismatic reformer Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada, the daughter of a Japanese communist, with the Communists dumped for good.
Russia is officially known as the Russian Federation, a name that acknowledges the existence of 89 constituent parts, including 21, semi-autonomous respubliki (republics), and 68 oblasti (regions) and kraya (territories). About two-thirds of the republics, regions and territories are in European Russia; the rest fall east of the Ural Mountains.
The republics exist as a result of the old Soviet system of nominally autonomous republics for many minority ethnic groups. In Soviet times those autonomous republics that lay surrounded by, or next to, Russia were grouped with it in a ‘federation’ that made up the USSR’s Russian Republic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all these republics declared varying degrees of autonomy from Russia, the most extreme being Chechnya, in the Caucasus, which unilaterally declared full independence.
Yeltsin struck deals with the republics, which largely pacified them, and the 1993 constitution awarded regions and territories much the same status as republics and declared that federal laws always took precedence over local ones. Putin has endeavoured to bring control back to the Kremlin by creating seven large federal districts – Central, South, North West, Volga, Ural, Siberia and Far East – each with an appointed envoy.