From conflict to synchronization
“In the power of the state,
two degrees of being or two conditions are to be distinguished:
the first is condition of distraction,
the second is condition of connection.”
Putin has consistently consolidated power and synchronized the work of its individual branches. The basic principle of his model is not a conflict of powers that is based on competition and distrust to each other but their synchronization that relies on trust and cooperation.
As a result, not only the clan conflict of the post-Soviet 90s was left behind but, more importantly, the necessary political conditions for solving urgent tasks for the country's development were created. Having survived the period of internal divisions that were accompanied by transcendental political ambitions of regional elites and oligarchs, the state managed to return to its natural form of a solid harmonious mechanism.
Over the past nearly 20 years, Putin's political system demonstrated both its viability and effectiveness. With all the shortcomings and flaws of Russian reality, Putin’s high-quality leap of the 2000s divided the modern history of the state into abnormal “90s” and the normality that followed.
The recovery of socio-economic relations and restart of all other spheres of life could not take place without a reliable domestic political frame capable of withstanding the bulk load of transformations in such a short time. The principles and practice of separation of powers have become one of the pillars of Russia's political architecture sustainability. The relevance of this issue to the further construction of the state was predetermined by a vital conflict of parliament and executive power led by the President in the moment of transition from the Soviet model. Without fixing this element of the political system it would be impossible to solve all other tasks.
It should be clarified that Russian interpretation does not imply the separation of completely independent powers but the separation of unified state power. And the unity of power is carried out both vertically and horizontally. Regarding vertical, Article 5 of the Constitution establishes that “the federal structure of the Russian Federation is based on its state integrity, the unity of the system of state power.”
As for horizontal, according to Article 10 of the fundamental law, the “state power in the Russian Federation is based on the division into legislative, executive and judicial.” It is known that the subjects of state authorities (defined in Article 11 of the Constitution) include the President, the Federal Assembly, the Government, and the courts. Correlation of the last three with the separation specified in the Constitution is obvious. The President, by contrast, is above this division, being the guarantor of the Constitution and ensuring “coordinated functioning and interaction of Government bodies.”
Rejecting the principle of “separation of powers” and emphasizing unity and indivisibility of state power is understandable. Fixing the position of the President outside the branches of power and giving him the status of the guarantor of the entire political system (that defines the main directions of the foreign and domestic policy), the 1993 Constitution continued the line of previous forms of Russian statehood. It is no coincidence that while explaining the principles of separation of state power in the Constitution, one of its authors - Sergey Shakhray - regularly recalls Speransky’s project where any division into different branches is secondary to the united “sovereign power”.
In addition, the territorial and ethnic-confessional complexity of Russia historically determines the key political role of the state leader's power - the only projection of state power capable of ensuring the unity of the country and its development.
The 90s: fragmentation of power
The declaration of the principle of separation of branches of power in Article 10 of the Constitution did not develop in any specific statements and clear explanations immediately after the adoption of the highest regulatory legal act. The topic was minimized. As a result, during the proto-state construction of the second half of the 90s, the newly born political institutions tried to feel the boundaries of authority through any available (formal and informal) levers of pressure on each other. The text of the Constitution did not find its final practical embodiment in any certain configuration of inter-institutional relations - the real roles and position of each of the subjects.
That is why, and because of the weakness of the President in power, it was impossible to hold back the inertia of the 1992-1993 conflict. The new parliament tried to act in the logic of the previous Constitution where the role of the Head of state was limited to an integral part of the executive branch. The Federal Assembly made intensive attempts to bite a larger piece of the power pie, regularly challenging the decisions of the President. It was from 1993 to 1999 that the State Duma repeatedly disagreed with the candidacies for Prime Minister's position that were proposed by the President: twice in March 1998 in relation to S. Kiriyenko and twice in August 1998 in relation to V. Chernomyrdin. The Yeltsin era also included all cases in modern Russian history of disagreement of the Federation Council with the President on the candidates for the post of Prosecutor General and for the seat of Head of the Central Bank. Even more revealing is the one-of-a-kind expression of mistrust of the Duma to the Government in June 1995 and the impeachment attempt in 1999 that became the quintessence of conflict.
Moreover, in addition to horizontal entropy of power, the state was under constant pressure from the oligarchy and regional elites that often directly built unconstitutional models on controlled territories. Let us recall one of the most striking symbols of attempts to privatize state power by the oligarchs - Evenki Autonomous Okrug, which was jokingly called “Evenki joint-stock okrug”, where the governor, the legislative assembly, and the courts were actually controlled by Yukos.
The formation of the Federation Council, which included heads of regions and chairmen of legislative assemblies, created additional difficulties. Instead of solving the problems of state-building, the upper house of parliament was deeply involved in the struggle against the Government for financing its own local interests and in servicing its corporate patrons.
Under these conditions, the process of calibrating relations within the state power was in the initial condition. In the formal dimension, individual preparatory decisions were made by the Constitutional Court and its regulations confirmed the key role of the President. However, the transition from the normative plane to political practice turned out to be impossible at that stage.
Real consolidation of power given the functional differentiation of authority began only under V. Putin. In his very first TV appeal in the status of the state’s leader, he designated the logic of the separation of powers. It aimed to cleanse this very power of impurities that were unrelated to the state. Putin insisted that it was necessary “to make the executive and legislative branches really work, to fill constitutional principles of separation of powers and unity of executive verticals with absolutely real content.” Explaining this task, President noted that in practice this would primarily require a reform in the Federation Council that would be aimed at eliminating the merger of the regional, executive and federal legislative branches.
This also concerned clear separation of political power and big business power. In the President’s rhetoric, “separation of powers” coexisted either with “separation of authority” of the federal center and regions or with exclusion of oligarchs from the political process.
The terrorist attack on Beslan revealed the need to continue the President's line to stabilize the state machine. This is exactly what the September 2004 reform package aimed at. It highlighted the sequence of consolidation steps taken by the President. In an interview with France-3 in 2005, while fixing the creation of a “real system of separation of powers,” the President emphasized improved efficiency of state institutions in order to eliminate the threat of Russia's development along the oligarchic path. In the same year, at the meeting of the State Council, Putin referring to Kant turned to the theory of separation of powers in relation to the creation of an effective system of regional policy: “He, as you know, in his doctrine of state and law emphasized the need for separation of powers and interpreted this principle as a way to harmonize and achieve equilibrium in the activities of public authorities. <…> And during the regional policy renewal we should strive to create a balanced, steady and effective system of federal relations.”
The vector of state-building set by Putin and the model chosen for implementing the principle of organizing the branches of power turned out to be extremely stable.
After 2005, Putin himself did not return to the discussion of the separation of powers into certain branches. Successful overcoming of the dispersion of the Yeltsin period revealed in the confrontation between parliament and the President, numerous conflicts at the federal and regional levels of authority multiplied by the role of the oligarchy in the political process brought this topic out of the current agenda of the President.
The separation of branches of power, remaining the declared principle, turned out to be much less significant in practice than the vertical line of power followed by the legislative vertical that were built since Putin’s first term as President. This expresses the logic of the Russian state that needs to maintain the unity of the implemented policy on the territory of the whole huge country. This process, including the creation of the Federal Districts and the institution of Plenipotentiaries, empowerment of the President to remove the Heads of executive power of the subjects and to nominate the Head of the Accounts Chamber, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, to appoint and remove the Chairman of the Investigative Committee, to appoint and dismiss prosecutors of subjects of the Russian Federation, etc., was aimed at building a model that allows the President and his administration to implement the very basic directions of foreign and domestic policy that the Head of state can set according to the Constitution. In 2006, the Constitutional Court upheld this logic by stating that the policies determined by the President are mandatory for all public authorities.
It is worth noting that the judiciary, the Constitutional Court in particular, as one of the significant players in the field of political construction, organically supported Putin's model of synchronization. The initial intention of the Constitutional Court to prevent confrontation and conflicts between the branches of power not only laid the legal basis for the consolidation of the power mechanism but also allowed to avoid the involvement of the judiciary in the competition for power resources. The courts managed to maintain the necessary distance in order to ensure enough trust of the remaining branches. The model would not be viable without it.
In the legislative process, the first element of synchronization was the creation of a “party of power”. Its control over parliament made it possible to remove the inconsistency of the legislative process from political practice. During the period of the Duma of the second convocation 441 draft laws were rejected or returned (141 by the Federation Council, 187 by the President, 113 by the Federation Council and the President). Meantime, in the Duma of the 3rd convocation, the President rejected or returned 31 draft laws, in the Duma of the 4th convocation - 7, the fifth - 3, the sixth and seventh - one at a time. Besides that, in the 1990s, the Federal Assembly repeatedly challenged and overcame the presidential veto. This practice came to naught under Putin.
In new realities, conflict situations were resolved in a completely different way. From the standpoint of formal practices, the role of conciliation commissions increased both between the chambers of the Federal Assembly and between parliament and the Government, as well as between federal and regional authorities. It is notable that in 2004 Provision on the Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate there appeared an item on the Directorate's function to “ensure within its competence conciliation procedures to resolve disagreements between federal bodies of state power and bodies of state power of the subjects of the Russian Federation, as well as between bodies of state power of constituent entities of the Russian Federation.” On an informal plane, the importance of various consultations on pressing political issues with the participation of the President and leaders of parliamentary parties can be noted.
After solving the problem of inconsistency within the parliament, the authorities turned to the issues of streamlining the legislative process at the federal and regional levels. To this end, a Council of Legislators was created to ensure the unity of the legal system at all levels. It is noteworthy that during the meetings with the Council Putin did not reduce the legislative process exclusively to the subject of parliament. In 2016, he said that overcoming inconsistencies and blurred legislation is “a common task for all participants in legislative processes, for all who are given the right of legislative initiative.”
The state, carrying responsibility for the policy pursued, requires all elements of its political system to be prepared for the mutual safety net. Thus, the executive branch cannot just passively freeze in anticipation of the necessary legislative framework. It must take an active part in its development.
Every year, the President starts Russian political mechanism with an Address to the Federal Assembly, pulling all the elements of the political system to a center with a spring of specific tasks. The message sets the general pace of the course for the Government, the State Duma, and other projections of state power. The need for collaboration of various branches to implement the provisions of the Address is stressed very clearly. In April 2018, the President formulated it this way: “in the course of the Address implementation, much depends on the close constructive interaction of lawmakers with the future Government of the Russian Federation.” This is the concept of the relationship between the branches of power in Putin’s state: coordinated work to implement the President’s instructions.
The change of President in 2008 did not lead to a revision of Putin's approach. On the contrary, Dmitry Medvedev’s comments on this subject mainly recorded the operability of Putin’s system that was focused on solving specific problems, and not on compliance with any regulatory requirements. Speaking on the 15th anniversary of the Constitution adoption, in the same year of 2008, Medvedev emphasized that the task of sharing power is “solving problems, not creating any model”.
In 2008, the constitutional framework of the Russian system of separation of branches of power was supplemented by the obligation of the Government to submit an annual report on the results of its activities to the State Duma. Formally, this innovation, enshrined in the new revisions of Articles 103 and 114 of the fundamental law, is one of the central elements of parliamentary control. In 2013, this idea was further developed in federal law “On parliamentary control”. In general, the practice of the Сabinet annual reports fits into Putin’s logic of synchronization of branches of power. The first four reports in front of the parliament in 2009-2012 showed the unity of the branches of power in the country's development process given the global economic crisis and its consequences. This is clearly demonstrated by the texts of resolutions on the Government report that were adopted by the State Duma during this period. All of them contain words of support for the actions of the Cabinet and its political course.
Since 2013, the State Duma has not adopted special decisions based on the results of the Government report. Routine work to jointly improve the legislative framework has come to the fore. The practical sense of Prime Minister’s annual speech on the results of work over the past year is being shaped. The Government report performs two important functions: it publicly records the coherence of the branches of power in solving current problems and provides additional momentum for their collaboration. Creation of a joint working group with the State Duma on the implementation of the proposals made during the last report of Prime Minister Medvedev to the State Duma in April 2019 continues this trend.
It is worth noting that certain attempts to revise these principles happen from time to time. One of the latest steps against the current system of separation of powers under Putin was made by parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin on the eve of the Government’s report for 2018. His initiatives on introducing assessments of individual ministries’ work by deputies and on the participation of the State Duma in the formation of the Government are clearly aimed at changing the current balance. In general, the reaction to these proposals turned out to be rather negative. They were rated as enhancing the conflict in relations between the branches of power, were absorbed and moved beyond the current political agenda.
World political practice has examples of various mechanisms for the separation of powers. Any attempts of normative interpretation of this principle or transfer of in-country political and philosophical discussions to foreign soil are doomed to failure. The model of separation of powers in the United States is of little use while describing French realities. An endless discussion on this subject in the United Kingdom, including Walter Bagehot's caustic remarks, is unlikely to help understand the situation on the other side of the English Channel.
In Russia, state power always manifests itself as a single organism that is designed to solve the tasks of preserving and developing the country. The Russian political leadership does not perceive the separation of powers as an end in itself. As a tool at its maximum; the one that allows situational solving of the state's tasks. In the early 2000s, addressing this issue was aimed primarily at ensuring real independence of state power (expressed in federal authorities) from the power of oligarchs and regional elites.
Subsequently, the synchronization of the Russian public authorities' functioning and its ongoing consolidation to solve pressing problems of modernization and further development of the country turned out to be much more significant.
In the current configuration, the main face of this power is the President. He is building the work of various branches of power around himself. Are they divided? Functionally – yes. However, in fact, they are a single mechanism for implementing public policy.
The Western scheme of public administration based on a conflict of divided powers that are in constant competition and mutual distrust has not taken root in Russia. Instead, Putin implemented a management model through synchronization. It involves trust-based cooperation between the branches of unified power. This is the main difference between the Russian model and its many Western examples. For them, the key component of separation is the conflict of various authorities. Meantime, we understand separation as a harmonious specialization of specific branches of solid power.
It should be admitted that this model has proved its effectiveness in Russian realities. Not only it allowed the state to overcome the patrimonial trauma of the 90s, but it also nullified the potential of internal political turbulence. History shows that successful political systems strive not to lose such achievements. It means that there are no essential prerequisites to revise the existing system.
D.Parenkov (MGIMO University)