In the shadow of a series of endless crises in Russia, the Kremlin has signaled a radical restructuring of the nation’s political system that recalls the grim era of Soviet dictatorship. In the continuous effort to further solidify his authority under the guise of national security, Vladimir Putin has announced that he will replace the democratic election of Russia’s 89 provincial governors with presidential nomination and substitute regional elections for members of the Duma with proportional representation. These measures would ensure a sheepish parliament, a unified state, and, ultimately, a mighty executive. Such a trend poses a major hindrance in Russia’s path to greater democracy. While Putin’s unwarranted usurpation has indubitably exacerbated proponents of political equality, few have expressed strident dissent, and the provincial governors have even publicly supported the proposals. This reality confirms the deep suspicion that Putin has already secured enough power to effortlessly advance his ambitions.
Since he assumed power in 1999, Putin has frequently attempted to impede Russia’s democratic evolution. In 2000, he forced the 89 provincial governors to relinquish their seats in the Federation Council. In 2002, he began to restrict the freedom of the press after the Moscow theater incident. In 2003, he successfully jailed his political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky on charges of tax evasion. Now, Putin attempts to undermine the basic constitutional structure of Russia’s democratic system of government.
Russia’s pursuit of greater democracy must proceed unobstructed, for it is the right path of a nation that fought to free itself from dictatorship. Free public dissent and open political discourse do not open the door to terrorism; instead, they pave the way for the expression of fresh ideas in response to new problems. A concentration of power only invites corruption and bureaucracy. Ultimately, the outcome is a step backwards in Russia’s quest for democracy.
This systematic subjugation of constitutional balance by executive supremacy must not stand in the court of international opinion. The United States must insist on the preservation of democracy in Russia today with the same vigor that it did two decades ago in calling for the end of an “evil empire.” The lack of decisive censure from the Bush administration signifies an expressive change of character for America’s role in the international system — from being a champion for global democracy to being an interest-driven superpower, concerned only with courting rhetorical support for its misguided war in the Middle East. Yes, Powell did comment in public that the United States has “concerns about it, and we want to discuss them with the Russians.” These words are dwarfed by the resolute messages of a generation ago, when America told the Soviet regime to “tear down this wall” so that people might live in the sunshine of democracy. International intervention in this case is crucial because the relative inexperience and feebleness of Russia’s infant democracy are likely to result in acquiescence to executive encroachment. For this reason, the United States must take a leading role in urging Russia to halt its “reforms.”
In recognizing this, we Americans should also look inward to reexamine the subtle but consequential institutional changes in our own country since the terrorist attacks. The powers of the American presidency have perhaps also been broadened beyond the boundaries set by our constitutional provisions. The emergence of an executive armed with unrestrained power to wage an unending campaign, the recognized authority to conduct preemptive wars and the self-asserted ability to detain suspects without due process should prompt outrage in the American public as we despondently watch the pellucid reflection of our government’s changes in the precarious development of Russian politics. Unlike Russia, the United States has over two centuries of democratic tradition that has shaped the limitations on executive power. The developments of the past two years have contradicted those traditions.
In 2001, the White House urged the passage of the Patriot Act, which curbs civil liberties. In 2002, the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department stated in a legal opinion on behalf of the White House that the president “enjoys complete discretion in the exercise of his commander-in-chief authority.” In the same year, the White House refused to allow Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to testify before Congress until it finally succumbed to public pressure. In 2003, President Bush refused to testify before the September 11 commission until it seemed politically unwise not to do so. Recently, President Bush issued an executive order reversing the practice of declassifying presidential papers 12 years after the end of term of office.
These unprecedented augmentations of presidential authority must be checked, for their continuation will endanger civil liberties and the constitutional framework. The American tradition of checks and balances allows Congress the power of oversight. The legislative branch must not relinquish the awesome responsibility of ensuring the constitutional exercise of power by the executive to the specious demands for expediency. The remedy for executive infringement is a vigorous Congress, resolved to maintain the balance of power on the side of institutional preservation.
To ignore the gradual encroachment of power of one is to emasculate the vibrancy of a democracy. Perhaps this is a lesson that the world’s two largest democracies could learn at a time of unprecedented change.
Michael Zang is a freshman in Morse College.