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New Russia = Ancient Rome?

In its search for constitutional models, did Russia go back in history way too far?

May 25, 2002

In its search for constitutional models, did Russia go back in history way too far?

Visitors to Rome often wonder about the ubiquitous acronym “SPQR” that graces everything in the Eternal City — from its trams to its public urinals.

The letters stand for “Senatus Populusque Romanus” — or “The Senate and the People of Rome.” The acronym itself dates back to ancient Rome, a time when the Roman Senate served as a global classroom of sorts for early experiments with democracy.

“SPQR” was a particularly apt phrase to describe Republican Rome — before Augustus became the first Roman Emperor in 27 B.C. Back then, Roman patricians were independently wealthy — and serving the res publica (“common good”) was considered to be the highest duty.

The Senate also provided a pool of ready-made leaders from which the city-state could find capable politicians and generals.

On the surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent transformation of his nation’s legislative upper house (the Federation Council), takes Republican Rome as its model. When it was first created in 1993, the Council included the leaders of each of Russia’s 89 federal territories.

It was a formula that proved unwieldy. Bigger than some of Western Europe’s largest countries, some of these regions, ethnic republics and lands are extremely remote. The upper house met infrequently — and proved quite useless as a legislative body.

In one of his first acts as president, Mr. Putin changed all this. He banished the vast array of regional governors from the Federation Council. The newly constituted Council (whose members are now called “senators”) works year round — the same as the Duma (or lower house of parliament). Russia’s senators must also approve all legislation before it becomes law.

Deputies in the Duma are elected — but the new Russian Senate is a far more “selective” body. The members of the remodeled Federation Council are appointed by the regions — and then “approved” by the government.

In effect, this arrangement means that prominent local politicians and independently wealthy businessmen — the true elites of the new Russian society — fill the Council’s seats.

Much like the Roman Senate of ancient times, these elites will gradually add crucial political experience to their proven business skills. As a result, they provide a pool from which future ministers, advisors and cabinet members may emerge.

Perhaps even a future Russian president will come from this Council — in the same way that an American president is often elected after serving in the U.S. Congress. That would be quite a change from the more familiar Russian scenario — a president who materializes, like Mr. Putin, from the shadows of the former Soviet intelligence agencies.

This new Russian “Senate” has some things in its favor. The country has experienced tremendous social and political turmoil after communism’s collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After more than 70 years of a communist monopoly on power, it was mostly party apparatchiks who knew how to work the levers of the state. All too often, the dissidents who valiantly fought the old system and called for change later turned out to be lousy politicians and inept administrators when they were temporarily handed the reins of power.

However, the market economy’s arrival in Russia — despite all the upheaval that went along with it — also meant that young, talented and ambitious people chose business over party politics as their ambition.

In the process, they managed to attain a level of material wealth considered unattainable under the Soviet system. True, the old guard still provides the bulk of the political and bureaucratic class. But the new Federation Council provides an avenue to power for the new generation — and Russia stands to benefit from their talents, skills and energy.

However, this rosy scenario is not the entire story. At present, Russia has a very strong presidency with which its Senate must contend. After all, Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, fought a pitched battle with his parliament in 1993.

Tanks were even called in to bombard opposition legislators holed up inside the Parliament. Mr. Yelstin’s vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, led the revolt and when Mr. Rutskoi was carted off to jail, the post of vice president became vacant. Eventually, it disappeared entirely.

Since that time, Russia’s president has stood alone at the apex of executive power — not unlike a monarch. Whenever President Yeltsin was confronted with an obstructionist Duma, he simply issued presidential decrees to break the logjam.

For the political system to function properly over the long term, however, an imperial presidency requires checks and balances in the form of an independent judiciary and a strong parliament.

Yet, Russia’s judiciary is notoriously powerless. And since the new members of the Federation Council are “approved” by the government, the Council has the potential to be a rubber-stamp entity for the president — not unlike the Supreme Soviet in the old Soviet Union.

In fact, Mr. Putin seems determined to use the Senate as a counterweight to the Duma — further tilting the balance of power in favor of the executive.
Principle worries Given Russia’s tragic history, the model of Republican Rome’s Senate might hold other problems as well. The Soviet Union was ruled by a clique of unchanging politicians who thought themselves better suited than the people for this task.

Going back even further in Russian history, a small political class lorded over the great mass of inert peasantry. A pattern of sorts has been formed.

What Russia needs now, more than ever, is the broadest possible participation by the people in the democratic process.

Such participation should range from grassroots political movements to voter participation in electing the upper reaches of government.

Instead, what even the reformed Council of Mr. Putin offers is a consolidation of power by the tiny class of the new rich — whose main claim to fame and wealth happened to be the fact that they were at the right place at the right time. After all, Republican Rome was a democracy, but only for those who qualified as its citizens. Divisions between the citizens and slaves — as well as rich and poor — were studiously observed and maintained.

To a modern observer, this looks suspiciously like an oligarchy — that is, the tyranny of the few over many. Roman democracy was probably extremely advanced for the times — but that was 2000 years ago. Despite its difficult history, Russia should be much further along.

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