During the Soviet era the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (the R.S.F.S.R.) was subject to a series of Soviet constitutions (1918, 1924, 1936, 1977), under which it nominally was a sovereign socialist state within (after 1936) a federal structure. Until the late 1980s, however, the government was dominated at all levels by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was all-powerful and whose head was the country’s de facto leader. Indeed, in the elections that were held, there was only a single slate of candidates, the great majority of whom were in effect chosen by the Communist Party. From the late 1980s through 1991—the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”), glasnost (“openness”), and demokratizatsiya (“democratization”) reform policies—fundamental changes took place in the political system and government structures of the Soviet Union that altered both the nature of the Soviet federal state and the status and powers of the individual republics.
In 1988 the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies was created, and a Congress of People’s Deputies was established in each republic. For the first time, elections to these bodies presented voters with a choice of candidates, including noncommunists, though the Communist Party continued to dominate the system. Thereafter, the pace of change accelerated. In June 1990 the Congress of the Russian republic proclaimed that Russian laws took precedence over Soviet laws, and the following year Boris Yeltsin became the republic’s first democratically elected president. An abortive coup in August 1991 by hard-liners opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms led to the collapse of most Soviet government organizations, the abolition of the Communist Party’s leading role in government, and the dissolution of the party itself. Republic after republic declared its “sovereignty,” and in December, when the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, Russia was established as an independent country.
The structure of the new Russian government differed significantly from that of the former Soviet republic. It was characterized by a power struggle between the executive and legislative branches, primarily over issues of constitutional authority and the pace and direction of democratic and economic reform. Conflicts came to a head in September 1993 when President Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament (the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet); some deputies and their allies revolted and were suppressed only through military intervention. On December 12, 1993, three-fifths of Russian voters ratified a new constitution proposed by Yeltsin, and representatives were elected to a new legislature. Under the new constitution the president, who is elected in a national vote and can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms, is vested with significant powers. As Russia’s head of state, the president is empowered to appoint the chairman of the government (prime minister), key judges, and cabinet members.
The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces and can declare martial law or a state of emergency. When the legislature fails to pass the president’s legislative initiatives, he may issue decrees that have the force of law. Under the new constitution the Federal Assembly became the country’s legislature. It consists of the Federation Council (an upper house in which each of Russia’s administrative divisions has two representatives) and the State Duma (a 450-member lower house). The president’s nominee for chairman of the government is subject to approval by the State Duma; if it rejects a nominee three times or passes a vote of no confidence twice in three months, the president may dissolve the State Duma and call for new elections. All legislation must first pass the State Duma before being considered by the Federation Council. A presidential veto of a bill can be overridden by the legislature with a two-thirds majority, or a bill may be altered to incorporate presidential reservations and pass with a majority vote. With a two-thirds majority (and approval by the Russian Constitutional Court), the legislature may remove the president from office for treason or other serious criminal offenses. The Federation Council must approve all presidential appointments to the country’s highest judicial bodies (Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, and Supreme Court of Arbitration).
The constitution provides for welfare protection, access to social security, pensions, free health care, and affordable housing. The constitution also guarantees local self-governance, though national law takes precedence over regional and local laws and the constitution enumerates many areas that either are administered jointly by the regions and the central government or are the exclusive preserve of the central government. In the decade after the constitution’s enactment, the government implemented several measures to reduce the power and influence of regional governments and governors; for example, in 2000 President Vladimir Putin created seven federal districts (see discussion below) above the regional level to increase the central government’s power over the regions. "Russia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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