Accountability for Wartime Presidents in Russia and the United States
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Martha Merritt, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, began her discussion by stating that "the accountability of public officials—or the perceived lack of it—is a serious problem for democratic societies worldwide and even more so for quasi-democratic societies such as Russia." Merritt explained that democratic political accountability is "distinguished by a complex web of monitors and checks that functions to limit the ability of leaders to craft public policy leading to undue harm," as opposed to the kind of rapid redress that some desire. She posited that an automatic tension exists between accountability and political power, as those in office seek to limit political accountability while those out of power seek to enhance it.
Merritt stated that in the case of Russia, war serves to limit the accountability of the president because "war in Russia has been a fundamental part of central state building, an exercise meant to enhance presidential power." She further noted that while accountability in Russia has a relatively short history, the political environment is far more complex than it once was. Merritt argued that while there are elements in the Russian political environment that could provide "proto-accountability," Russian President Vladimir Putin has contained key forces that restricted his presidential predecessors.
According to Merritt, President Putin has created a "two-track system" of accountability. She explained that Putin and other government officials have been relatively straightforward in addressing foreign policy controversies yet provide little information or justification on domestic matters. Using the latest Chechen crisis as an example, Merritt explained how the regime has effectively stifled domestic and foreign media coverage of the human rights abuses in Chechnya itself. But the aftermath of the gassing of hostage-takers and captives in the Moscow theater showed a clear divide between domestic and foreign press that could not be attributed to pressure from the regime alone. Merrit said that the Chechen war has taken on a peculiar power in the Putin presidency, allowing the President "to appear as the champion of the Russian people, while keeping the military busy in a war that is not going well."
Merritt noted that in the case of the United States, war is treated differently because communication between people and president requires that "the United States takes a lot longer to mobilize its war machine." She explained that perhaps the most dramatic difference is that the U.S. president has proven able to launch a war effort that is extremely unpopular worldwide and elicits mixed responses at home because he is "borrowing on centuries of credibility for American presidential authority."
Differences in the potential for presidential accountability in Russia and the United States also have structural roots in the powers of the president, in addition to the obviously fewer constitutional checks and balances in Russia. Merritt noted that in the Russian Constitution, the president is not defined as part of the executive branch, though he oversees it. Therefore, the Russian president is structurally accountable to fewer forces than the U.S. president, who heads the executive branch and belongs to a political party.
Merritt concluded by reminding the audience that however unsatisfied Americans might feel about accountability in American politics, it is important to recognize that "there is a web of monitors gathering information that has the potential to hold U.S. public officials to account," though not in "real time." She stressed that in Russia monitoring bodies "find it increasingly difficult to gather information that has the potential to hold the Russian president to account." Merritt reiterated that because accountability is an ex post facto exercise, "it will always leave people hungry for democracy feeling dissatisfied."