The Russian State Duma does not have a reputation for grilling executive officials. Especially since United Russia – the Putin-supporting “party of power” – has controlled a majority of seats in the 450-seat lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, the Duma has done little to act as a check on executive behaviour. In that way, it acts as we expect other parliaments do in non-democracies – a source of strength, rather than irritation, for executive actors.
Nevertheless, the State Duma has the formal capacity for some form of executive oversight. During “government hour” sessions, executive officials are invited to respond to questions from deputies. Figure 1 shows the frequency of these sessions, 2005-2017.
Figure 1: Frequency of “government hour” sessions by year, 2005-2017. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).
The mere fact that these nominal oversight sessions take place does not, of course, tell us if this is more than mere performance. A key question is whether deputies ask needling, critical questions.
Another important question is who is invited to be questioned by deputies. One way to classify Russian executive actors is by whether their respective bodies are controlled directly (formally, at least) by the president or the government. According to article 32 of Federal Constitutional Law number 2 from 1997 (with amendments), the president directly controls the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Defence, Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Emergency Situations, as well as a number of federal agencies and services, including the Federal Security Service (FSB). All other executive bodies are formally controlled by the government.
This divide in direct control is found in other states, including Vietnam, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Myanmar. In the latter, for example, the Constitution states that the military controls a number of core bodies, such as the Ministry of Mines, the Ministry of Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
We can think of this executive divide in terms of delegation and principal-agent relationships. In most (if not all) regimes, there will be a leader – whether that be, for example, a monarch, president, general secretary, or a collective body, such as a junta. For shorthand, we can refer to them as “autocrats”. At the same time, the executive can contain other actors, to whom responsibility for certain portfolios are delegated. Thus, whereas the “autocrat” likely retains control over sensitive portfolios relating to security and state sovereignty, non-“autocrat” elements of the executive can be delegated portfolios relating to, say, economic policy.
This division is attractive to elites, not least because it allows for blame deflection during periods of economic hardship. The “autocrat” can use other executive actors as a buffer from societal criticism – something that has been on display recently in Iran, where the president, Hassan Rouhani, was recently grilled by legislators over the deteriorating economic situation. The Guardian Council is, therefore, partially shielded from popular opprobrium.
Executive oversight in the legislature also allows “autocrats” to keep tabs on delegated executive portfolios. By subjecting non-“autocrat” elements of the executive to legislative scrutiny, the hope is to reduce possible agency loss – that is, that agents end up pursuing their own interests, rather than those of their principals.
Going back to Russia, we can ask a basic question: Does executive oversight performed by parliamentarians differ when aimed at officials from president-controlled bodies (PCBs) compared to government-controlled bodies (GCBs)?
In a recent article on executive oversight in the Vietnamese National Assembly, Paul Schuler – a political scientist from the University of Arizona – demonstrates that legislators are able to discuss “hot topics” relating to portfolios delegated from the Communist Party of Vietnam to the government. By contrast, “hot topics” relating to the policy areas of those executive portfolios directly controlled by the Party are off limits. The Party, therefore, allows the legislature to engage in executive oversight, but only in areas that will not make the Party vulnerable to direct critique.
Does the same happen in Russia? To get at this, we can ask a simpler question: Are PCB officials subjected to fewer “government hour” sessions in the State Duma than their GCB colleagues? To answer this, Maxim Ananyev – a Lecturer in UCLA’s Political Science Department – Paul Schuler, and I collected data on “government hour” sessions, 2005-2017. Basic information relates to the date of query sessions, as well as the identity of executive officials, and whether they have posts in president- or government-controlled bodies.
The Russian case is particularly interesting, given Vladimir Putin’s stint as prime minister, 2008-2012. Constitutionally barred from holding a third consecutive term in the presidency, Putin made use of the formally semi-presidential nature of the Russian Constitution, moving to the premiership until resuming the presidency in 2012, with Medvedev moving to the prime ministership.
This switch in formal roles is interesting insofar as it means that Putin’s direct control over executive bodies varied over time. Now, some readers will, no doubt, say that formal control means nothing – especially in Russia and especially with regard to Putin. That hunch may well be well-grounded. At the same time, it is an empirical question amenable to study whether Putin’s move to the premiership affected executive oversight behaviour in the State Duma. Indeed, we can generate some expectations. If Putin remained the “autocrat”, 2005-2017, but was not president, 2008-2012, then it is plausible that he would want to use mechanisms to keep tabs on the performance of those bodies he was used to controlling directly – that is, president-controlled bodies – but which were now controlled (formally, at least) by President Medvedev. Executive oversight in the Duma could be one such mechanism. If that were the case, then we would expect to see increased PCB oversight, 2008-2012.
Figure 2 presents data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by year. The horizontal dashed line marks the percentage of all executive bodies that are controlled directly by the president. If PCBs were overseen at the same “rate” as GCBs (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole), then “government hour” appearance figures should fall around this line.
Figure 2: Percentage of all “government hour” appearances involving officials from president-controlled bodies by year, 2005-2017. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. The dashed vertical lines mark the approximate break points between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies. The dotted horizontal line marks the average percentage of all executive bodies that are PCBs for the period as a whole. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).
The pattern is striking. During Medvedev’s presidency, there was a dramatic increase in PCB oversight. On Putin’s return to the presidency, there was a dramatic decrease in PCB oversight. This pattern is consistent with the idea that Putin used “government hour” sessions to keep tabs on president-controlled bodies during his time as prime minister. It is plausible that he was able to do this, given the stronger ties he had (compared to Medvedev) with legislative agenda-setting actors, such as the State Duma speakers during his premiership, Boris Gryzlov and Sergei Naryshkin. When Putin was president himself, however, PCB oversight was largely lower than would be expected if PCB officials were scrutinised at the same rate as GCB officials (proportional to their makeup of the executive as a whole).
Presidential inaugurations in Russia take place on 7 May. That means that 2008 and 2012 need to be split into Putin and Medvedev periods. Figures 3 and 4 present data on the percentage of “government hour” sessions involving officials from PCBs by presidential periods within these two years.
Figures 3 and 4: Left figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2008 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Right figure – percentage of “government hour” appearances in 2012 involving officials from president-controlled bodies by president. Bars around data points represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: author’s calculations based on “government hour” planning documents, available from https://pravo.gov.ru (last accessed 14 August 2018).
The patterns are consistent with the picture provided by figure 2: PCB oversight was higher during Medvedev’s presidency than during Putin’s presidencies.
One clear alternative reason for why president-controlled bodies might be overseen by legislators with less vigour than government-controlled bodies is that PCBs handle sensitive subjects. The regime leadership might make clear that such topics are off bounds for parliamentary scrutiny. However, if this were the case, we should not observe changes in PCB oversight across the Putin and Medvedev presidential periods, as the sensitivity of executive bodies should remain relatively stable over time. But we, clearly, do not observe this.
There are a few anomalies with respect to the “autocrat” delegation explanation, however. Firstly, 2008 – why did PCB oversight remain low during Medvedev’s first year in the presidency? Secondly, 2013 – why did PCB oversight not fall even more dramatically on Putin’s return to the presidency? And, finally, 2017 – what explains the upshot in PCB oversight?
Along with answering these questions, much more analysis remains to be done. Most importantly, we need to explore whether meaningful oversight of the executive does, in fact, take place during “government hour” sessions. And we need to entertain alternative explanations. For example, might increased PCB oversight during Medvedev’s presidency reflect his preference for more transparency or checks on executive power?
Regardless of the real answer, this preliminary analysis joins the growing body of work challenging the idea that legislatures in authoritarian regimes are merely ‘rubber stamps’. Evidence from Russia suggests this can involve oversight of the executive in parliament, but needling questions are directed at bodies not directly controlled by Putin.