Tag Archives: law-making

Ben Noble – Presidential proxies: Cloaked law-making in contemporary Russia

This is a guest post by Ben Noble (University of Oxford)

The Russian newspaper Vedomosti recently reported something that may strike many as rather odd. Drawing on a range of internal sources, the paper claimed that the Russian Presidential Administration was increasingly using members of the Federation Council – the upper chamber of the Federal Assembly, whose members are colloquially referred to as “senators” – to introduce bills into the federal legislature.

This use of senators as law-making proxies is puzzling because of the President’s formal law-making powers: According to article 104, section 1 of the Russian Constitution, the President of the Russian Federation has the “power to initiate legislation”. In practice, this means the President has the authority to introduce bills into the State Duma – the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, and the entry point for all legislative initiatives.

In spite of this power – and in spite of the President’s centrality in policy decision-making – Russian Presidents have been responsible for a surprisingly small proportion of introduced bills. Figure 1 presents information on the formal sponsorship of bills introduced into the Duma. From 2012 to the middle of 2015, Dmitrii Medvedev and Vladimir Putin were responsible for a clear minority of bills, outnumbering only initiatives sponsored by the higher courts and the Federation Council.

Notes: These figures are taken from Analiz prokhozhdeniya zakonoproektov v Gosudarstvennoi Dume po itogam vesennei sessii 2015 goda, page four (Apparat Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii, 2015). This figure is taken from a forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ekaterina Schulmann.[1]

There is evidence that the Kremlin has used Duma deputies in the past to cloak its law-making activities. For example, a bill introduced into the legislature in September 2014 proposing state compensation for Russian citizens “unjustly” affected by the decisions of foreign courts was, although formally sponsored by Duma deputy Vladimir Ponevezhskii, actually drafted by lawyers from the State Legal Directorate – a unit within the Presidential Administration. Similarly, it seems that a bill branding NGOs that received foreign financing and carried out “political activities” as “foreign agents” was written by the Kremlin’s Domestic Policy Directorate. More generally, there is also anecdotal evidence of the Directorate using particular deputies as its proxies.[2] This use of proxies means, of course, that the Presidential Administration is responsible for a larger proportion of bills than indicated in Figure 1.

But why would the Kremlin want to hide the origins and real sponsors of these legislative initiatives? There are at least two clear rationales. The first is that proxy sponsors allow the Presidential Administration to introduce bills without running the risk of coming under criticism in case the initiatives prove unpopular. In the case of “unjust” foreign court decisions, this initiative was portrayed by some commentators as an attempt to protect the interests of Russia’s economic elite at the expense of tax-paying citizens. In the end, the bill was rejected in second reading in the Duma on 21 April 2017 – a fate nearly unheard of for bills formally sponsored by the President. The second rationale is that proxy sponsors help increase the legitimacy of initiatives. The “foreign agents” bill, for example, was formally introduced under the names of 243 Duma deputies, helping to sustain a narrative that this was a measure supported by the Russian people, rather than merely the political leadership.

What, in turn, explains the shift from the Kremlin’s use of Duma deputies to senator proxies? This, most probably, stems from strained relations between the Presidential Administration and the new leadership of the State Duma. Vyacheslav Volodin was elected chairman of the Duma in October 2016 at the beginning of the lower chamber’s seventh convocation, following elections in September. Volodin set about to implement a series of reforms aimed at, inter alia, reducing the Presidential Administration’s ability to direct legislative politics – something Volodin himself is aware of from his time as first deputy chief of staff in the Presidential Administration.[3] In attempting to increase the Duma’s independence, it seems that Volodin has complicated relations with the Kremlin in general, and his successor, Sergei Kirienko, in particular. By contrast, the Federation Council and its chair, Valentina Matvienko, are more predictable partners for the Presidential Administration.

There is another reason, however, why the Kremlin might now prefer to use senator proxies. In the Duma, all deputies might soon be required to inform their party leadership about their intention to introduce a bill. The goal of this proposed change is, it seems, to prevent Government ministries using deputies to introduce initiatives. Ministries do this when, for example, they have been unable to secure the consent of other ministries to introduce the bill under the Government’s formal imprimatur. Under the proposed new system, bills from the Presidential Administration, but introduced by deputy proxies, could be held up in this pre-introduction sign-off process in the Duma. By contrast, bills sponsored by Federation Council members will not have to undergo this screening process. Although this change has not yet been introduced into the lower chamber’s standing orders, the ‘party of power’, United Russia, has already introduced pre-introduction screening procedures, making senator proxies a more attractive proposition.

The use of proxies to cloak law-making is something that does not fit the conventional picture of “rubber stamp” parliaments – a label that has been used frequently for the Russian Federal Assembly in recent years. However, legislative politics in systems of executive dominance can, it seems, involve a complex dance, with masks, smoke, and mirrors.

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[1] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] B. Noble and E. Schulmann. Forthcoming. ‘Parliament and the legislative decision-making process.’ In D. Treisman (ed.), The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[3] B. Noble. Forthcoming. ‘The State Duma, the “Crimean Consensus”, and Volodin’s reforms.’ In A. Barbashin, F. Burkhardt, and O. Irisova (eds), Russia: Three Years After Crimea. Warsaw: The Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Ben Noble (benjamin.noble@politics.ox.ac.uk, @Ben_H_Noble) is the Herbert Nicholas Junior Research Fellow in Politics at New College, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Researcher in the Laboratory of Regional Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. His doctoral dissertation examining executive law-making in the Russian State Duma was awarded the 2017 Sir Walter Bagehot Prize by the Political Studies Association. From September 2017, he will be a Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.