RUSSIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
The Russian political system is one of the more recent to embrace democracy but remains deeply flawed in terms of its democratic credentials, overwhemingly tainted by corruption, and massively influenced by the power and personality of one man, Vladimir Putin.
The Russian Federation was the largest nation to emerge from the break up of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Following the constitutional crisis of 1993, Russia adopted a new constitution in a referendum of December 1993. Essentially the country is described as a federal presidential republic.
The constitution of 1993 provides strong powers for the President. The President has broad authority to issue decrees and directives that have the force of law without legislative review, although the constitution notes that they must not contravene that document or other laws. Indeed Russia's strong presidency is sometimes compared with that of Charles de Gaulle in the French Fifth Republic (1958-69).
The President's power in practice is underlined by his power to make so many appointments of key officials. It is estimated that the size of the Presidential apparatus in Moscow and the localities is more than 75,000 people, most of them employees of state-owned enterprises directly under Presidential control.
The Law on Presidential Elections requires that the winner receive more than 50% of the votes cast. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates in term of votes must face each other in a run-off election. Under the original 1993 constitution, the President was elected for a four-year term but, in November 2008, the constitution was amended to make this a six year term. The President is eligible for a second term but constitutionally he is barred from a third consecutive term.
The first President of the new Russia was Boris Yelsin who was elected in June 1991. He was followed by his hand-picked successor Vladimir Putin. After a term as Acting President, he was elected for his first term in May 2000 and for a second term in March 2004. In accordance with the constitution, he stepped down in March 2008 and was succeeded by his nominated successor Dmitry Medvedev (previously a First Deputy Prime Minister).
In March 2012, Putin was re-elected as President on the first ballot in a widely criticised election in which the opposition candidates were weak, the media was compliant, and there were many electoral irregularities. In March 2018, Putin was again re-elected. His most serious rival Alexei Navalny was barred from the race. The communist candidate came second with 11.8% of the vote; the ultranationalist candidate came third with 5.6% of the vote; and the only candidate to criticise Putin openly - the liberal television star Ksenia Sobchak - won a mere 1.6%.
According to the official figures, in 2012, Putin took 63.6% of the vote on a turnout of 65.3% while, in 2018, he took 76.6% of the vote on a turnout of 67.6%, a significantly larger share on a slightly increased turnout. Putin is genuinely popular among Russian voters but these figures substantially overstate that support because he controls most of the the media and massively limits the scope for opposition.
After his two four year terms and his two six year terms as president, constitutionally Putin should step down in March 2024.
The Prime Minister is appointed by the President with the approval of the Duma and is first-in-line to the presidency in the case of the President's death or resignation.
Historically the role of Prime Minister has been very much subservient to that of the President. However, this situation changed in March 2008 when Vladimir Putin stepped down as President - as he was constitutionally required to do - and became Prime Minister while the First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stepped up to the Presidency.
In May 2012, Putin returned to the Presidency and former President Medvedev became Prime Minister in an exchange of roles. In a surprise move, in January 2020 Putin appointed as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Although little known by the public, his is admired among technocrats, becoming famous within a policy genre that, even for hardcore wonks, has only a niche audience: tax enforcement. This move is viewed by some observers as a pivot toward a new brand of techno-authoritarianism.
THE STATE DUMA
The lower house in the Russian Federal Assembly is the State Duma. It is the more powerful house, so all bills, even those proposed by the Federation Council, must first be considered by the Duma. However, the Duma's power to force the resignation of the Government is severely limited. It may express a vote of no confidence in the Government by a majority vote of all members of the Duma, but the President is allowed to disregard this vote.
The Duma has 450 members who are known as deputies. Originally seats in the Duma were elected half by proportional representation (with at least 5% of the vote to qualify for seats) and half by single member districts. However, President Putin passed a decree that from the November 2007 election all seats were to be elected by proportional representation with at least 7% of the vote to qualify for seats. This 7% threshold was one of the highest in Europe and, by introducing this, Putin eliminated independents and made it effectively impossible for small parties to be elected to the Duma.
Following further changes, now the Duma is elected through the parallel voting system that was used between 1993 and 2003. So half of the 450 seats are elected by proportional representation from closed party lists with a 5% electoral threshold with the whole country as a single constituency. The other 225 seats are elected in single-member constituencies using the first-past-the-post system.
Under the original 1993 constitution, elections were held every four years but, in November 2008, the constitution was amended to make the Duma's term five years. A Duma election was held in December 2011 (when turnout was only 60%). So a Duma election should have been on 4 December 2016 but it was brought forward to 18 September 2016 (when turnover fell to a record low of just 48%). The next election is due in 2021.
The Duma is headquartered in central Moscow, a few steps from Manege Square.
THE FEDERATION COUNCIL
The upper house in the Russian Federal Assembly is the Federation Council. The Council has 170 members who are known as senators. Each of the 85 federal subjects of Russia sends two members to the Council.
The federal subjects are the 47 oblasts (provinces), the eight krais (various large territories with the same legal status as oblasts)), the two federal cities (Moscow and St Petersburg), the 21 republics (areas of non-Russian ethnicity), the four autonomous okrugs (various regions) and one autonomous oblast (the Jewish Autonomous Oblast), each category of which has different powers. In 2014, Sevastopol and the Republic of Crimea became the 84th and 85th federal subjects of Russia, although the two most recently added subjects are internationally recognised as part of Ukraine.
One senator is elected by the provincial legislature and the other is nominated by the provincial governor and confirmed by the legislature.
As a result of the territorial nature of the upper house, terms to the Council are not nationally fixed, but instead are determined according to the regional bodies the senators represent.
The Council holds its sessions within the Main Building on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street in Moscow, the former home of the Soviet State Building Agency (Gosstroi).
The main political party is called United Russia and led by Dmitry Medvedev. It was founded in April 2001 as a result of a merger between several political parties. It describes itself as centrist, but it is essentially a creation of Vladimir Putin and supports him in the Duma and the Federation Council. In the Duma election of December 2011, even with the alleged voting iregularities, United Russia's share of the vote fell by 15% to just over 49% and the number of its deputies fell by 77 to 238. However, in the election of September 2016, the party - while winning 54% of the vote - increased its number of seats by 105 to 343.
The main opposition party is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation led by Gennady Zyuganov. In the election of 2011, it won 19% of the vote and took 92 seats. At the last Duma election in 2016, its share of the vote fell to 13% and its seat count fell by 50 to 42.
The other parties in the Duma are the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky) with 39 seats (down by 17) and the fake opposition party A Just Russia (led by Sergey Mironov) with 23 seats (down by 41).
The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation consists of 19 judges, one being the Chairman and another one being Deputy Chairman. Judges are appointed by the President with the consent of the Federation Council.
The Constitutional Court is a court of limited subject matter jurisdiction. The 1993 constitution empowers the Constitutional Court to arbitrate disputes between the executive and legislative branches and between Moscow and the regional and local governments. The court also is authorised to rule on violations of constitutional rights, to examine appeals from various bodies, and to participate in impeachment proceedings against the President.
Although in theory the judiciary is independent, most observers believe that major elements of the judiciary - together with the police and prosecution authorities - are under the political control of the Kremlin and more specifically Vladimir Putin.
While Russian democracy may not be a total oxymoron, it is most certainly a work in progress with Vladimir Putin remaining a massive influence on the acquisition and exercise of power. Observers describe the current state of the Russian political system as "managed democracy" or "sovereign democracy" or simply as "Putinism". The three political parties not in government are called the "systemic opposition".
The dismissal of Russia's powerful prosecutor-general Yuri Skuratov in 1999, the indictment of Russia's richest oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and again in 2010, the unexplained murder of investigative journalist Anna Plitkovskaya in 2006, the death in prison of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009, the imprisonment of the three Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova & Yekaterina Samutsevich in 2012, the expulsion from the Duma of opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov in 2012, the conviction of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2013, and the assassination of leader of the opposition Boris Nemtsov in 2015, are but the most dramatic examples of the iron grip on political power exercised by Putin and his allies.
The dominant political clan in Russia is often referred to as the siloviki, veterans of the security and military establishment led by Putin himself. Perhaps to the surprise of external observers, Putin's leadership is still popular among the public outside the major cities, partly because it is seen as restoring Russia's standing after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, partly because it follows in a long historic tradition of strong central leadership stretching from the Tsars and through Stalin.
More widely, the political battle lines in Russia are not for or against democracy or corruption; all parties are notionally for democracy but know that it does not exist, while all parties are theorectically against corruption but do nothing to tackle it. The real battle line is between centralisation and regionalism, that is whether all meaningful power should reside in the Kremlin or whether power should be shared with the regions and major cities.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Kremlin opponent and former Duma deputy who lost his seat in 2007 after he was banned from the elections, said of the 2008 extension of the terms for both the President and the Duma: "This is very negative. It's a clear signal that the regime will be authoritarian and autocratic, and control everything. It's all about keeping power. The tsar was constrained by the aristocracy. The party bureaucracy controlled the general secretary. Today the president controls parliament, the senate, regions, the bureaucracy and the security services, as well as oil and gas."
In 2011, the last president of the former Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev said of the current Russian political system: "We have everything - a parliament, courts, a president, a prime minister, and so on. But it's more of an imitation."
Meanwhile there is an interplay between political and economic forces that is seriously destabilising Russia. The nation's recent occupation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine has resulted in sanctions from the Western nations and there has been a collapse in the price of oil which provides half of the country's exports and funds 40% of the federal budgets.
However, none of this has deterred Putin from his determination to extend his time in power indefinitely. He has tabled constitutional changes that would allow him to remain president until 2036.
Last modified on 10 April 2020
If you would like to comment on this essay e-mail me
For guides to the political systems of other nations click here