Tag Archives: Accountability

Russia – Inviting Voice without Accepting Accountability: Putin’s Search for Alternative Sources of Legitimation

Electoral success in competitive authoritarian regimes poses a conundrum for political leaders. The less competitive the election, the more likely it is to prompt a backlash, witness the color revolutions in the post-communist world in the 2000s. In the case of Russia, the fear of a popular rebellion led to restrictions on NGOs, especially those with foreign ties, and to a greater reliance on institutions that project an aura of popular accountability without actually restraining political power. In other words, as the legitimating potential of traditional liberal institutions, such as elections, parties, and parliaments, fades, the regime seeks substitutes in alternative organizations and rituals that can buttress leadership claims of responsiveness to the public.[i]

Insisting that existing NGOs were unrepresentative of Russian society, Putin established the system of Public Chambers [Obshchestvennye palaty] in April 2005, shortly after the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as a state-sanctioned alternative to traditional liberal institutions. Filled for the most part with pro-regime experts and dignitaries, the organization has acquired more responsibilities in recent years and is now a quasi-parliament, a quarter of whose members are elected through an internet poll.[ii] The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation sits atop a network of regional chambers and affiliated public councils that monitor the activities of executive agencies.[iii] Although it is tempting to write off this Russian experiment in horizontal accountability as yet another example of “virtual politics,”[iv] it does provide opportunities for feedback, especially from those whose concerns about specific policies and organizations do not spring from a general critique of the regime.

Besides organizations like the Public Chambers, Putin has introduced or enhanced other institutions that seek to illustrate the President’s attentiveness and accessibility to citizens. Perhaps the most ambitious and risky of these efforts is the prime-time call-in show entitled Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Instead of regularly receiving supplicants at Court, like traditional rulers, Russia’s republican monarch of the digital age makes himself available periodically to the nation in a marathon television broadcast in which he answers questions posed by text, email, letters, Skype, and by anchors and selected members of the studio audience. Over the years Putin has developed a mastery of this form of communication, alternating between stern statements directed at the country’s enemies to wonkish discussions of obscure areas of public policy and humorous banter with questioners.

Although the event is carefully scripted, the live format gives the program an edge, which is heightened by the willingness of the organizers to allow the occasional critique of Putin’s leadership. For example, at the last Direct Line, in April 2015, a member of the studio audience, Aleksei Kudrin, the former Finance Minister, asked Putin why GDP growth in his first term [2000-2004] had been almost 7 percent annually, when the price of oil averaged $30 a barrel, whereas it was only 1.5 percent in his current term [2012-present], with oil between $65 and $70 a barrel.[v] The rare uncomfortable moments like these only heighten the program’s authenticity and popularity, and one suspects that most of the massive audience that tunes in would agree with Putin’s assessment, made at the end of the 2015 version of the show, that the almost four-hour event, with no breaks, was “the most powerful public opinion poll…which allows us to understand what people are really concerned about….”[vi]

Between these episodic high-profile encounters with the nation, Putin receives a constant stream of letters and email messages from citizens, who also have the option of visiting in person presidential reception centers [priemnye] in Moscow and the regions to communicate their concerns. Receiving, analyzing, and following through on these requests and complaints of Russian citizens is the job of the presidency’s Department for Work with Communications from Citizens and Organizations [Upravlenie po rabote s obrashcheniiami grazhdan i organizatsii]. Continuing a tradition of the “complaint bureaucracy” that had formed part of the tsarist and communist regimes,[vii] the presidential Department for Work with Communications has in recent years devoted more resources to tracking complaints through officialdom and analyzing and presenting graphically this store of governmental data. This year the Department is on track to process more than a million requests and complaints from citizens and social groups.[viii]

Accessible on the presidential website, the monthly and annual reports provide a treasure trove of information about the concerns of Russian citizens, which are broken down by policy area and by the region of the sender.[ix] The changing focus of citizen concerns is evident in these materials, witness the 32 percent month-on-month increase from August 2014 to August 2015 in the number of communications relating to the economy, which has produced considerable anxiety of late because of the effects of Western sanctions and the declining oil price. There was an even greater percentage decrease in the number of requests and complaints relating to the State/Society/Politics rubric, reflecting perhaps greater popular resignation about the shape of the political order amid the further consolidation of power in the hands of Putin and his team.

Whether directed to the President’s complaints office or parallel institutions in agencies like the Procuracy, these messages–a quintessential form of individual political action–serve as a barometer of the public mood and represent a low-cost, low-risk way of exhibiting openness to public voice while avoiding the dangers to the regime of collective political action. It is unclear, however, how responsive political leaders are in competitive authoritarian regimes to the signals received through these alternatives to liberal institutions. It is also difficult to assess how effective such alternatives are with the public as substitutes for the traditional means of legitimation found in democratic countries. Inviting voice without accepting accountability may be difficult to sustain as a long-term strategy in the absence of levels of repression and information control that are higher than those in place at the moment in Russia and other competitive authoritarian regimes.

[i] Among Russian political institutions, parties and parliament inspire little confidence among the public. A poll conducted in late 2013 found that whereas the President, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the army were trusted by 55, 48, and 43 percent of the population, respectively, the figures for the parliament and political parties were 25 and 12 percent. Doverie institutam vlasti, Levada-Tsentr, 7 October 2013. http://www.levada.ru/07-10-2013/doverie-institutam-vlasti

[ii] The Russian president selects another quarter of the members and regional Public Chambers select half of the body.

[iii] A similar, though more robust, network of public monitoring boards has functioned in Kyrgyzstan since 2010. See Eugene Huskey, “Public Advisory Boards in Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian Experiment with Horizontal Accountability,” IREX Scholar Research Brief, August 2013. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/EPS%20Scholar%20Research%20Brief%20Huskey.pdf

[iv] Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Communist World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[v] Priamaia liniia s Vladimirom Putinym (15 aprelia 2015), at 32:00. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhHtS4oVst8

[vi] Ibid., at 3:57:00. For an assessment of this program as political and discursive performance, see Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The discourse of a spectacle at the end of the presidential term,” in Helena Goscilo (ed.), Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 104-110.

[vii] There is a rich literature on citizen complaints in Russia; see, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Supplicants and Citizens: Public Letter-Writing in Soviet Russia in the 1930’s,” Slavic Review, vol. 55, no. 1 (Spring 1996), pp. 78-105. Studies of the contemporary complaint bureaucracy include Laura A. Henry, “Complaint-Making as Political Participation in Contemporary Russia,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, vol. 45, nos. 3-4 (September-December 2012), pp. 243-254; Danielle N. Lussier, “Contacting and Complaining: Political Participation and the Failure of Democracy in Russia,” Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 27, no. 3 (July-September 2011), pp. 289-325; and Joshua Solomon, Citizen-State Relations in Hybrid Regimes: The Case of the Correspondence Directorate of the Russian Presidency, Senior Thesis, Stetson University, May 2013.

[viii] Informatsionno-statisticheskii obzor rasmotrennykh v avguste 2015 goda obrashchenii grazhdan, organizatsii i obshchestvennykh ob’edinenii, adresovannykh Prezidentu Rossiiskoi Federatsii, p. 20. http://letters.kremlin.ru/media/letters/digests/41d57b5db0d596e13201.pdf

[ix] Complaints and questions from citizens are categorized into five major policy areas–State, Society, Politics; Social Sphere; Economics; Defense, Security, Legality; Housing Sphere–and each of these is disaggregated further into five sub-categories. Maps, graphs, and pie charts abound in these lengthy reports; the August 2015 monthly report, for example, was over 100 pages. Ibid.Put

Indonesia – To Decree or Not to Decree?

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Perppu (presidential decree, or regulation in lieu of law in Indonesia) to address the issue of one of Indonesia’s highest institutions – the Constitutional Court – being hit by the nation’s most-entrenched problem – corruption – may alleviate the poignancy of the latest corruption scandal. The anticorruption watchdog, Komisi Peberantasan Korupsi (KPK), is formally investigating Akil Mochtar, now-suspended chief justice of the constitutional court, for accepting bribes to rule in favour of a losing candidate in the district chief elections in Lebak, Banten. In Indonesia, a Perppu is a government regulation issued under an emergency that carries the weight of the law until the House of Representatives rejects it or votes to support it.

The Perppu may restore the Constitutional Court or, at the least, ensure that a phoenix rises out of its ashes. It also raises the question (over which there is already some debate): is it necessary to light the fire in the first place? That is, does the corruption scandal in the Constitutional Court warrant the Perppu? More generally, under what conditions are presidential decrees useful?

For Indonesia, the answer depends on two considerations: first, the role of the Constitutional Court; second, the effect of the Perppu on accountability.

The Indonesian Constitution places characteristic checks and balances between the executive and bicameral legislature. In addition, the Constitution specifies roles for the Supreme Audit Board (Badan Permeriksa Keuangan) to ensure accountability of state finances, the Supreme Court as the highest court of the nation, and the Constitutional Court to review constitutionality of legislation and disputes over general election results.

This capacity of the Constitutional Court – to review and rule on general election disputes – frames the corruption charges against Akil. Local elections are highly contested as a result of significant expenditure powers following devolution in 2001, and the Constitutional Court has been, hitherto, the venue for authoritative ruling – they are final and binding – in election disputes. Clearly, this scandal strikes at the heart of political trust and democratic development in the country.

The urgency regarding the Constitutional Court lies in that it continues to adjudicate in election disputes, albeit with a significant loss in credibility. President Yudhoyono’s Perppu targets three areas for action: (a) criteria, (b) selection, and (c) oversight of the justices. Fundamentally, then, the Perppu represents a clear, unfailing commitment to political integrity at the highest levels of politics. It is an important signal.

Given the significance, it is critical to consider the Perppu in the broader context of government accountability, specifically, horizontal accountability between government institutions to check and restrain abuses of power by branches of government or public agencies.[i] It is instructive to note that when O’Donnell (1998) first raised the concept of horizontal accountability, he held “judicial autonomy” as “tricky” because the lack of oversight to enhance its autonomy may lead directly to a lack of accountability (123).[ii]

In this broader context, President Yudhoyono’s effort to enhance accountability is a step in the right direction. it is no wonder: the President consulted extensively with constitutional scholars, lawmakers, and members of the judiciary on this Perppu.

Which likely answers the larger question: when are presidential decrees useful? Clearly, when they address the problem (increase government effectiveness) and improve accountability in the process.


[i] See discussions in O’Donnell (1998), and Yap and Gibb (2013: 160), about horizontal accountability as well as its complement, vertical accountability, where public officials are held accountable through the electoral process, an active civil society, or a free press.

[ii] Studies of accountability generally focus on executive accountability with its potential for abus related to the position of head of government and commander-in-chief.