Accessibility links

Experts Call President Putin's Reforms Undemocratic - 2004-10-06


Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently introduced sweeping changes to the country's electoral system. In this report from Washington, VOA's André de Nesnera describes those proposals and looks at what they mean for the country's political future.

President Putin's changes will affect all the governors of Russia's 89 provinces and half the representatives in the 450-member lower house of parliament, the Duma.

Mr. Putin wants to appoint the governors rather than have them elected, as they are now. In the Duma, half the representatives are now elected directly by popular vote. Mr. Putin wants to change that and have all lower house members elected proportionally from party lists. Both proposals have to be approved by parliament before they become law.

Russia experts in the United States say the initiatives will centralize power in the presidency and reduce any checks and balances on Mr. Putin's power.

Marshall Goldman, from Harvard University, says it is a return to Soviet voting procedures abolished a decade ago. "It doesn't mean that communism is back, but it is certainly very different from the kind of democracy that we thought we saw and were hoping to see more of in the latter days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin," he said.

Peter Reddaway, from George Washington University in Washington D.C., says the proposal to appoint governors does not bode well for Russian democracy. "Clearly, it is a very big blow to democracy. Russia is supposed to be a federal state and if the citizens within each unit of the federal state can't elect their own leader, it makes a mockery, really, of the whole notion of federalism," he said.

Mr. Reddaway says the changes in voting procedures for parliament's lower house will make it more difficult for opposition parties to have elected representatives.

Michael McFaul of the Hoover Institution's Washington D.C. office says since his election as president four years ago, Mr. Putin has consistently weakened every independent source of power in the Russian political system. Mr. McFaul says President Putin has reigned in the national media and has already diluted the governors' powers by eliminating them from participation in parliament's upper house, the Federation Council.

"He has also weakened the power of the independent political parties, so that today, the three main independent political parties: the Communists, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, are all much weaker today than they were four years ago. At the same time, the pro-Kremlin parties are much stronger," he said. "And finally, the parliament, the State Duma, which once used to be an important, vocal critic of the president during the Yeltsin era, is now 100 percent - well not 100 percent - but two thirds majority firmly behind President Putin."

That is why Mr. McFaul believes the Duma will pass President Putin's proposals without much opposition.

President Putin has said his new political measures are necessary to tighten security and fight terrorism after the Beslan tragedy, in which more than 330 people, half of them children, were killed by Chechen rebels. But many experts question the link between fighting terrorism and tightening electoral procedures.

During the first U.S. presidential debate between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush said he told President Putin that a democracy needs checks and balances. And by consolidating power in the central government, Mr. Bush said the Russian leader signals to the world he doesn't believe in such safeguards.

Stephen Cohen, from New York University, believes the new proposals may backfire on President Putin. "The problem he now has is he no longer can put the blame for what goes wrong in Russia on any other branch of government," he said. "He cannot blame the governors, because they will be his men, possibly in some cases, women. He cannot blame the parliament, because it will be the parliament he has chosen and therefore, all discontent in this vast country, be it popular or within the bureaucracy, or yet higher within the Kremlin-related elites, all that discontent and opposition will focus on Putin."

Mr. Cohen says the system President Putin is trying to create, opens the door to non-democratic ways of changing the top leadership. That is the risk, says Mr. Cohen, of concentrating too much political power in the presidency.

XS
SM
MD
LG