The State Duma and Russian Politics

By
Allison Abrams

Everyone's favorite target of ridicule among Russia's beleaguered political institutions is the State Duma," remarked Martha Merritt, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, University of Notre Dame, and former Short-term Scholar, Kennan Institute, at a 4 October 1999 Kennnan Institute lecture. However, Merritt posed, if the Duma is merely ridiculous, how does the Duma garner considerable resources and occasional concessions from the executive branch? In an attempt to explore this dynamic of contemporary Russian politics, Merritt discussed visible activities of the Duma, which often suggest "political theater," as well as its less visible activities, which take place "off stage."

Merritt began by surveying the overall "power map" of contemporary Russia and the State Duma's place among political institutions. She commented that a key factor which Russian analysts refer to is the adoption of the Russian Constitution in December 1993. This version of the Constitution, presented by Yeltsin for public referendum, was the most executive-dominant. In addition, by using the referendum process (against which there have been many charges of corruption), the public was given only a yes or no option, thereby eliminating negotiations which might have produced a viable constitution.

Although the State Duma was constitutionally empowered very little, it was given one key power-- approval of the President's choice for Prime Minister. However, if the Duma does not approve the President's choice for prime minister after three presentations, the president has the power to dissolve the Duma. Despite this, Merritt noted, in September 1998 the current Duma was able to force Yeltsin to abandon Chernomyrdin as his candidate for Prime Minister and replace him with Primakov, the Duma's favored choice.

Merritt commented that this was less of a victory for the Duma and more of a temporary weakness on the part of the President. While this is an example of the occasional checks that the parliament exerts against executive power, Merritt remarked that is it a "check without balance." In other words, she explained that "these impediments are often extra-constitutional, arbitrary in their execution, and rarely yield new legitimate sources of power for the institutions that performed the checking."

Another public, or "on stage," activity of the Duma was the impeachment proceedings this summer. Five charges against Yeltsin were approved by the Duma for consideration of impeachment, with the third--the conduct of the war against Chechnya in 1994-96-- thought of as being the most justified and likely to be approved. Merritt remarked that throughout the proceedings the atmosphere in the Duma was both somber and angry. The more liberal members felt that they were empowering the communist factions if they supported these charges. Others felt that some of the charges were legitimate, while others acknowledged the impossibility of these charges passing through the entire impeachment process. In addition, on the eve of the impeachment hearings, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Primakov, whose nomination had been an important concession by the executive branch. It was a reminder to the Duma and the rest of the country that the President was in charge.

One of the less visible activities of the Duma are deputy inquiries--official channels through which deputies ask either for information or redress other governmental institutions. Merritt chose to explore these inquires due to their great increase in recent years. In 1994 there were 37 inquiries, in 1996 there were 597, in 1998 there were 3,025, and as of early May, 1,252 in 1999. Merritt noted that deputy inquiries are sometimes used to address constituents' problems, as well as to search for an angle in the Duma's power struggle with the executive branch. In 1999, thus far, approximately one-third of deputy inquiries have been directed at the presidential administration. Merritt commented that while some would believe the increase in the use of inquiries to mean that it is powerful tool, her interpretation considers it as more of a last resort. Merritt noted that many have tried other means of resolving disputes before using inquiries, and that about a quarter of the inquiries were repeat inquiries.

Merritt also discussed a September 1999 package of measures that might have strengthened the Duma's position among political institutions, but interestingly failed to pass the Duma. Her reading of the situation is that current members are relying on continued executive dominance and as the executive office is currently under contention, they do not want to empower the Duma if a member of their party becomes President next year. Merritt noted that this is a reflection of how deep the commitment may or may not be to change the constitutional balance of power.

Those who desire a stronger Duma express the need for a more constitutionally empowered institution. Merritt agreed this is the only way it could have a more enduring and important role. Returning to the question of why the President feels it worthwhile to compromise with a weak political body, Merritt remarked that "because the presidency itself faces the threat of illegitimacy as a new institution that has already been strongly compromised by its current occupant...the Duma's ability to extract concessions from the executive still relies mostly on the fact that it provides a platform for those who are upset over executive abuse."

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