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The spirit and the letter of democracy. Putin’s Russia… October 2, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democracy, Russia.


I’m enormously admiring of Vladmir Putin’s latest idea. As reported in the Guardian he has suggested that since he is debarred by the Russian Constitution from serving another term as President he might become Prime Minister instead. The funny thing is that a couple of weeks back I was thinking about him on foot of an interesting discussion on Splintered Sunrise on democracy and the thought struck me, ‘what if he simply switched over to Prime Minister’. Needless to say I dismissed it almost immediately. Which tells you, perhaps, why I am an anonymous blogger and he is President of all the Russians.

But even so, I have to admire the simplicity with which he puts forward his message. The same report noted that:

…Putin yesterday gave the strongest hint yet that he will remain at the centre of power in Russia for the forseeable future, saying the possibility of him becoming prime minister after the presidential election in March was “entirely realistic”.

I like that ‘entirely realistic’. It is the understatement that is so telling. There he is, weighing up his future and that of millions of Russians. Should he take up golf like Clinton? Middle East peace making like Blair? No, presumably those would not be ‘entirely realistic’ options.

It gets better. When asked about the nature of any such Premiership he noted that:

“Heading the government is a realistic idea,” Mr Putin told the party’s congress when asked about his plans. He added that it was “early” to be discussing himself as a candidate, but he would be prepared to take the prime minister’s post on two conditions: that United Russia won the parliamentary poll and that a “decent, competent and effective person with whom I could work” was elected as president in spring 2008.

Again, got to love the ‘decent, competent…etc, etc’. I imagine that if he becomes Prime Minister it will be very much in the nature of an executive premiership. The levers of power will slip over to same in the next year or so. But in a way such bluntness is heartening. There is little beating around the bush with Putin. One gets exactly what one sees. And, naturally, he has an eye on the Presidency in the long term. He can run again after the next President. Presumably we might see a switch back to a more ‘Presidential’ model at that point. Or as was reported:

Mr Mukhin said that if Mr Putin became prime minister it was “entirely possible” that with support from United Russia in the parliament he would change the law to increase the powers of the premiership vis-à-vis the president. “Putin promised not to change the constitution before he leaves the presidency, but he doesn’t have any obligations beyond that,” he noted.

So, we have Putin in near perpetuity. And all of it done in such a way that the letter of democracy is entirely intact. One might even argue that the spirit, although slightly ruffled around the edges remains there or thereabouts, particularly if Putin doesn’t change the constitution.

I’m reminded, for some reason, of what Australian cultural commentator Donald Horne wrote in his book “The Public Culture” about ‘myth’s’ (in the semiotic sense) of democracy.

“The very way in which the ‘myth’ of representative democracy ‘legitimates’ state power int he name of the people can distract citizens from the realities of political power. It can suggest that since they all have the vote and use their votes with relatively equal weights, there must be in their society an equality in the distribution of power. This illusion is strengthened by beliefs in the centrality of government – as if ‘power’ is uniquely resident within the government, which is represented as having an independent (sometimes arbitrating) existence and of representing an agreed common good… the setpiece battles of presidential systems that can begin the day after a president is sworn in (and that in the US take over the last year of a presidential term) can weaken faith in government but not by puttign politics out among citizens. In watching the sentsations of party politics citizens are encouraged to believe that political discussion is being carried out for them…the electoralisation of politics can suggest that a citizen’s only task is to vote; it can even suggest that there is something undemocratic in protest by citizens against the government, because the government is the repository of the people’s will…’

I think Horne is onto something here and it has particular applicability to both the Russian, and the US, systems of government. The executive Presidency engenders precisely this sense that protest is illegitimate because state and President become enmeshed in a web of significations which feed off and support each other. The problem is arguably worse in Russia due to the centralising tendencies of the Putin years (although that tendency is understandable as a reaction to the near chaos of the previous decade) than it is in the US. Having said that to criticise Russia after fifteen years of a more pluralist polity in comparison to the US seems churlish in the extreme.

But the larger lesson is the implicit problematic aspects of executive Presidency, and we may be moving into a situation where counter-intuitively Russia then pulls towards an executive Prime Ministership. To be honest Prime Minister Putin strikes me as a much more satisfactory state of affairs, even in the context of successive stints in the position. But that leads to other interesting questions. How different would the structure of Russian democracy be, if at all, in such a context. The Presidential model tends towards weaker political parties (something that is evident in both the US and Russian systems). But there is no reason per se why an executive Prime Minister would lead to stronger parties.

It is, however, worth noting that he points to a ‘legitimation’ by United Russia winning the parliamentary poll. I think that this indicates that Putin still looks for some degree of ‘democratic’ legitimation. Sure, like Horne, we can see this as something of a fig leaf, but representation demands popular support. And it is unquestionable that Putin is genuinely very very popular indeed (as Wednesday pointed out on Splintered Sunrise). I’ve noted that his ability to stabilise what was a dismal situation is one part of that, but others are the way in which he and his pulled back key elements of the Russian economy by re-nationalisation. These are innately popular moves. We’ve seen some of the recent international shadowboxing, most entertainingly for those of us of a certain age in the renewed flights of Soviet era bombers (incidentally on KCRW it was pointed out that it was a remarkable achievement in itself to get the TU-95 Bears into the air, since they date back to 1952).

And one can’t help but feel that Putin might understand, or even agree with, Donald Horne when he writes that:

We can avoid being deluded by the magic of democratic ‘myths’: but we can also recognise that legitimating governments is the best we can do. Everything else is worse.


1. Red Squirrel - October 2, 2007

I follow Russian politics quite a lot and I think the prospect of Putin becoming PM was always an open one. As for the legitimacy thing, I wouldn’t say it is peculiar to Putin, but more a characteristic of Russian tradition. The Russian Great Leader has always had to pose as an expression of the Nation.


2. WorldbyStorm - October 2, 2007

I’m sure you’re right, just I find the deadpan delivery with which he announces everything fascinating.

And yes, expression of the Nation is a very good way of putting it. Still, better that there is some reference back to those who are being represented than none. My fears would not be for Putin as such but what comes after. Political systems are only so malleable without inducing instability in one area or another.


3. Wednesday - October 2, 2007

I think first of all we need to be clear about what exactly he has said he will do. He said that he will agree to head the United Russia list for the Duma elections. He didn’t announce that he was going to be PM. His comments which ‘suggested’ that were made in response to direct questioning, but he clearly said it was too early to speculate.

I’m not entirely sure he actually has any intention of becoming PM. One thing about Putin is that he likes to keep people guessing. This may be just his way of avoiding being seen as a lame duck in the dying days of his presidency. It also could simply be a means of trying to ensure United Russia’s success in the Duma elections.

If he does, though, I wouldn’t necessarily see it as his attempt to hold on to power, per se. He’s on record as saying the presidency has too much power (I know that will strike some people as ironic) and he might well see a strong PM as a good way to even out the balance.

Finally I am reminded of the final years of Reagan’s second term in which some of his supporters started seriously talking about removing the constitution’s two-term limit. Once again, the double standards …


4. WorldbyStorm - October 2, 2007

Wednesday, don’t get me wrong on Putin. While extremely dubious about executive Presidencies, which I think elide state and personality too much, I have no quibble with Putin as a PM with a range of powers not dissimilar to our own. And in that context I’d also have no particular problem with him continuing in that position in a number of successive terms. No double standard there, particularly since I would have no time for removing the US constitutions two-term limit.


5. Wednesday - October 3, 2007

I wasn’t accusing you WBS, but the response from many others has been that this just proves Putin is the new Stalin or whatever.


6. WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2007

Sorry, my misreading. Thinking about Putin he reminds me nothing so much as an FF leader. Not quite the same, but an intriguing mix of the populist slight centre leftism/comfort with commerce/identification of state and nation (particularly interesting in the way that for example FF ultimately became a very 26 county nationalism although it would never recognise itself as such). As you say he sure isn’t Stalin or anywhere near that.


7. Eagle - October 3, 2007

Finally I am reminded of the final years of Reagan’s second term in which some of his supporters started seriously talking about removing the constitution’s two-term limit. Once again, the double standards …

Wow. I was living in the US at that time, I was a Reagan supporter and I NEVER heard ANYONE express this. I wasn’t a political addict, so maybe some guys in coffee shops discussed this or maybe it was in some barely read Op-Ed pieces or whatever, but there was never anything like the beginning of an attempt to change the constitution (which takes years).

I think I can remember people saying this about Clinton once or twice, but again it was never going to happen. And, even with all that said, it’s hardly like the two term restriction has been part of the Constitution all that long (ratified in 1951).

Generally some people do talk about altering the Constitutional requirements whenever someone popular comes along (see the requirement only a “natural born citizen” being eligible to be President and Schwarzenegger)


8. Wednesday - October 3, 2007

Well, you must have been living in a different part of the US than I was because I certainly remember hearing it. No, there wasn’t a concerted effort, but it was definitely suggested by a couple Republican politicians. At this stage I can’t remember which ones, though.


9. Modeling » The spirit and the letter of democracy. Putin’s Russia… - October 4, 2007

[…] mhr.live wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptAs reported in the Guardian he has suggested that since he is debarred by the Russian Constitution from serving another term as President he might become Prime Minister instead. The funny thing is that a couple of weeks back I was … […]


10. Eagle - October 4, 2007

{Tried to post this three times yesterday, but no luck. I took out the links the articles I mention here to see if that’s the issue.}

Hey, Wednesday. I take it back. I decided to do a little digging and I did find that there was some discussion on the 22nd Amendment during Reagan’s second term. He was opposed to the Amendment, but he also said he had no interest in serving a third term. I just read this column by William Buckley from 1988 where he discusses the Amendment and Reagan.

Having written that, I can still say that there was nothing like a public campaign to change the Constitution at the time.

And, Clinton himself has spoken out about the Amendment and how it is wrong. I can’t remember who said it, but when the Amendment was passed by Congress (Republican) in 1947 one Democrat complained that ‘they couldn’t beat him while he was alive so they’re beating him while he’s dead’, referring to Roosevelt, of course.


11. Eagle - October 4, 2007

I keep trying to post the links to the Buckley article and Clinton’s remarks, but no luck.

For Buckley’s column, google search for “Repeal the 22nd – 22nd Amendment – column”.

For Clinton’s remarks, google search for “CLINTON CALLS FOR CHANGE TO 22ND AMENDMENT”.

Both will come up first in the listings.


12. Eagle - October 4, 2007

Now, about those Russians.

I don’t know much about Putin at all other than general impressions. I guess I’m surprised by the almost upbeat comments about him here. I have a couple of questions.

One, what about Chechnya? Do you guys figure he’s only doing what he has to do there?

Second, haven’t there been some mysterious deaths of journalists who have reported on shady business dealings of some of Putin’s backers? And, what about the guy who was murdered in London? Is this stuff not really Putin’s responsibility?


13. Eagle - October 4, 2007

Oh, and Wednesday, I was in New York during the late 1980s. I didn’t pay much attention to politics other than reading the NY Times on the subway and voting. I don’t remember getting too worked up about things other than the broad sweep.

Something like the proposed change to the 22nd Amendment would have had to have been a daily issue before I would have taken any notice of it.


14. Eagle - October 4, 2007

Last one on the 22nd Amendment:

In 1986, for example, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), then chairman of the Republican House campaign committee, introduced legislation to repeal the 22nd so as to allow Ronald Reagan to run for a third term. Vander Jagt’s resolution was even endorsed by Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who then served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

From the same report (a few years old now):
[T]here are two resolutions currently pending in the 108th Congress to repeal the 22nd Amendment. One, H.J.Res. 11, is sponsored by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), while another, H. J. RES. 25, has broader bi-partisan appeal with seven co-sponsors: Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), and George Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). (The same seven representatives sponsored an identical resolution in the 107th Congress, but it didn’t go anywhere.)



15. Wednesday - October 4, 2007

I didn’t say there was a public campaign to repeal the amendment, I just said that some of Reagan’s supporters were talking about it – which they were.

Back to Putin. Yes, horrible things have happened in Chechnya, many of which the Kremlin does bear responsibility for. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that it was Yeltsin who started that war, though. There were also far more journalists killed under Yeltsin than under Putin. And no, I don’t believe there is any evidence whatsoever that Putin or even his government was responsible for Litvinenko’s death. Frankly I’m not sure why they would even bother about him – the guy was a feckin loon and no threat whatsoever to the Putin regime.


16. WorldbyStorm - October 5, 2007

My own sense isn’t, say upbeat about Putin, Eagle. But, I think that his Presidency has brought much needed stability to Russia and that it has reined in the excesses of the Yeltsin years – both economic and otherwise. There are enormous problems still. You point to some of them, although as with Wednesday I think the idea that Putin would worry himself one iota over Litvinenko is unlikely – and to be honest that death caused many many more problems for him than had the man continued living. Whether state supported elements had some hand or act is a different matter. But being almost coldly pragmatic about it Russia isn’t the only large state with security services prone to irrationality. An interesting article, I think in the Guardian yesterday about how there was a danger Putin might be squandering the opportunity he has at the moment in more cosmetic gestures and so on rather than putting serious weight behind infrastructural upgrades etc which Russia badly needs. That leads back to my comment above re Putin not being a million miles away from an FF approach. He certainly isn’t tied to any clear ideology other than perhaps a sort of soft dirigisme.


17. Wednesday - October 6, 2007

An interesting article, I think in the Guardian yesterday about how there was a danger Putin might be squandering the opportunity he has at the moment in more cosmetic gestures and so on rather than putting serious weight behind infrastructural upgrades etc which Russia badly needs

If it’s this article you’re referring to I don’t see what’s particularly interesting about it. Putin Opponents Predict Putin Downfall. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? There isn’t really anything but the vaguest detail provided of why that might happen. Besides, we’ve been saying for years that some day Fianna Fáil’s disgraceful neglect of infrastructure in this state would come back to bite them in the arse, at least as far as the voters are concerned. We’re still waiting.

Maybe you meant another article?


18. Wednesday - October 6, 2007

I think your spam filter is being over-active again …


19. WorldbyStorm - October 6, 2007

I will check it now…


20. WorldbyStorm - October 6, 2007

I think that the article is a bit more fair than that, and yes, the analysts mentioned might well hold views different to those of Putin, but that alone doesn’t undermine their critique per se. Don’t we all belong to groups who hold views different or critical to some degree of Putin?

And that leads me to another thought. While I don’t see Putin as an ogre, neither do I see him as an unalloyed good. I think it is necessary to critique power centres, worth pointing out that none of those quoted by Tisdall suggested that he was moving towards totalitarianism bar those who are his explicit political opponents such as Kasyanov, or Yavlinsky (and they didn’t say he was a new “Stalin”). I think such charges are over the top, but… it is a centralised political system, it bears continual scrutiny.


21. Wednesday - October 8, 2007

the analysts mentioned might well hold views different to those of Putin, but that alone doesn’t undermine their critique per se

No, but it’s a bit like quoting Opposition supporters in Ireland predicting that FF are going to collapse because of their failures in the same areas. It isn’t “interesting” in and of itself.

I’m actually reading at the moment Frank McDonald’s book “The Construction of Dublin” which you probably know of. The litany of corruption and incompetence it chronicles would lead any unbiased reader to conclude that surely this government could not possibly be re-elected. Of course they have been, twice since the book was published. Voters just don’t care about that sort of thing as long as they feel themselves to be economically better off. As in Ireland, so in Russia.


22. WorldbyStorm - October 8, 2007

Or the U.S.

I know what you’re saying, but, isn’t there a danger that your approach can tend towards a sort of passive support of the status quo? In other words, is it the essentials of the critique by opponents you dislike, or their critiquing Putin in the first place? I know it’s not the latter – as such – but sometimes that tack can seem to tend towards it…

BTW Isn’t the Construction of Dublin sort of the upgraded version of his “Destruction of Dublin”, isn’t it? The latter was a really grim read. And I take your point about how one might think FF would never be re-elected – although FG also had their pawprints over some of the more egregious developments during that period. But I’m not sure – as you say – that that is how electoral politics works, and particularly in this society where aesthetic (a word I hate) considerations in the public space were generally low low low down the list of priorities in an impoverished economic situation…


23. Wednesday - October 9, 2007

Yes, I’m conscious of the fact I probably come across as a starry eyed Putin acolyte, which is not my intention. I have come across a few of those and I’d be just as argumentative with them… they don’t tend to post on sites like this, though.


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