Is Putin merely Russia's latest tsar?
“First, Yeltsin and Putin met with Patriarch Alexii, and the Russian Orthodox Church blessed the transfer of power. The Orthodox Church always satisfied the desires of the state; there was something monarchical about that. Then came the transfer to Putin of the nuclear briefcase, a symbol of power and confirmation of Russia's great-power status. This too was taped.” (Shevtsova 56)
The pageantry of power transfers is not unique to Russia, but symbolism of Tsardom is tangible. The Patriarch's blessing, the briefcase. In the Tsarist imagery, the nuclear briefcase must then be the derzhava, the golden ball symbolizing royal power. However superficial it may seem, this continuity of symbols from pre-revolutionary through Soviet to post-Soviet times is an appeal to former greatness. In the words of the new national anthem, slavsya strana, my gordimsya toboy (“Be glorious, land, we take pride in you”), and Rossiya svyeshennaya, nasha derzhava (“Russia the glorious, our derzhava”). The anthem, a rewording of the Soviet anthem, the tricolor flag, the Tsarist double-headed eagle crest, and even the red flag of the Soviet Union were pushed through the Duma in 2001, making clear that Putin and Russia were not about to reject their past (Shevtsova 144).
Despite the symbolic connection, it is premature to call Putin a new tsar outright. Since taking office in 2000, Putin has exercised the significant power constitutionally apportioned to the executive under the 1993 constitution in order to stabilize the political system and consolidate power in his hands. He, perhaps due to his background in the security services, has faith in the power of strong leadership to effect change, but he has not yet crossed the boundaries of constitutionality. I will argue that while Putin has definitely not shirked at strengthening his influence over government, we cannot call him tsar or not until such a time as he clearly acts in violation of the constitution or by some other means attempts to maintain his rule beyond his second term.
Putin's consolidation of power is multifaceted: he has reestablished federal control over the regional governments, he has reinforced his authority within the executive apparatus, he has subordinated cabinet and legislative initiative to his own, and he has maneuvered in the political arena to undermine opposition to his unofficial “party of power” and its affiliates. I will focus on the third of these, as it might imply that Putin has undermined the balance of power in the government.
The cabinet, which had gained some independence under Yeltsin's often weak rule, weakened when faced with a strong president, as Sakwa notes, “In the Soviet era prime ministers has been merely administrative officials, whereas under Yeltsin they had become politicised. Under Putin's activist presidency, the prime minister's office returned to the Soviet pattern” (Sakwa 121). As the cabinet is ultimately subservient to the president, and the Duma has a very limited right to reject appointees, Putin is free to appoint his own people to cabinet offices, and to replace them at his convenience (Sakwa 128). While Yeltsin often had an adversarial relationship with his Duma, the Seventh Duma (2000-2003) had no clearly dominant coalition, allowing Putin to push through his desired legislation (Sakwa 131). Sakwa refers to an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper), from February 6, 2001, about the growing phenomenon of bills originating not in Duma committees, but rather in the Kremlin, accusing the Duma of a lack of initiative (Rodin 2001).
If during his first term Putin enjoyed a cooperative Duma, then he owned his second duma, the Eighth Duma. In the 2003 elections, the two pro-Putin parties claimed 344 deputies, and all other parties totalled to 102 (Shevtsova 288). Most significantly, the liberal parties did not reach the five percent cutoff, thereby losing major party status. By 2004, it was clear that Putin had a popular mandate, reflected in both governmental makeup and in opinion polls. It is tempting to point to Putin's attacks on oligarchs, at the government takeover of independent media stations, and at his dominance of the political arena and conclude that he has assumed the role of tsar. I would say, rather, that the current situation is a reflection of a wartime president who has managed to project an image of control and strength, and who has no great commitment to a free and open society or market.
In a recent New York Times editorial, Putin is cited as having said that he would not change the constitution in order to run again, but also that “he would not disappear” (NYT 2005). Insofar as Putin is still respecting the circumscription of his constitutional role, we cannot call him a tsar; the key would be an attempt to undermine the electoral process to illegally maintain power. An elected autocrat who submits to constitutional authority cannot be called tsar.
- “Mr. Putin's Clouded Promise” The New York Times, October 3, 2005.
- Rodin, Ivan, “Rabota dumy zavisit ot prezidenta i pravitel'stva” Nizavisimaya Gazeta, February 6, 2001. http://www.ng.ru/printed/politics/2001-02-06/3_duma.html
- Sakwa, Richard, Russian politics and society, London: Routledge, 2001.
- Shevtsova, Lilia, Putin's Russia, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 2005.