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Russian Government

Russia is a democratic federation of 89 subnational jurisdictions, classified as republics, oblasts (provinces), autonomous oblasts, autonomous regions, and territories. At the national level, the constitution of 1993 calls for three branches of government-the executive, legislative, and judiciary-but it does not stipulate equal powers for each. In that system, the president of Russia has formidable powers as head of the armed forces and the Security Council. Those powers include the authority to appoint a wide variety of government officials without effective oversight or check. The houses of the bicameral legislative branch have offered only weak opposition because of their constitutional position and because effective opposition parties do not exist. The judiciary, a rubber-stamp branch of government under the Soviet system, has moved only slowly to assert an independent authority. President Vladimir Putin used this structure to enhance the power of his office and dominate the government.

The president, who is the head of state, served a maximum of two four-year terms [later extended to six years in time for the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin]. The president appoints the prime minister (who is head of government), the head of the Central Bank of Russia, and the chairman of the highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court. Those nominations require confirmation by the State Duma, the lower house of parliament (the Federal Assembly), although the president may dissolve the Duma if it fails three times to confirm a nominee for prime minister. Several other top-level presidential nominations, however, require no approval from the legislative branch. The president also issues decrees that go into effect without the parliament's approval. Putin, who was elected in 2000 and reelected in 2004, has further improved his position by introducing changes that limit the power of the two houses of the Federal Assembly and through the plurality of his party in the Duma. There is no vice president; if the president is incapacitated, the prime minister succeeds him until a new election is held.

In 2006 the government, headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, included 16 ministries, some of which were important policy-making centers. The three "power ministries" - Internal Affairs, Defense, and the Federal Security Service, which had ministerial status - were concerned with domestic and international security. The Ministry of Finance is the center of national economic policy making, and since 2000 the Ministry for Economic Development and Trade, which merged several Soviet-era ministries, has assumed a powerful economic policy position under German Gref. On many issues, the last two ministries are considered a counterweight to the "power ministries." Also included at "cabinet level" are the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the chairman of the Central Bank of Russia, and the procurator general, who is the chief prosecutor. Several powerful political "clans," tacitly united under the Putin administration, are expected to vie for power when Putin leaves office.

In late 2005, President Putin authorized the 126-member Public Chamber, a new body designed to streamline public input into legislation and government policy. The appointive membership of the chamber includes accomplished individuals in a variety of civic, academic, and social fields. In its first year of existence, the chamber's 17 specialized committees intervened in several major policy areas.

The Federal Assembly is divided into two houses, the Federation Council (178 members) and the State Duma (450 members). Members of both houses serve four-year terms. The houses have differing responsibilities; the Duma has the more powerful role of primary consideration of all legislation. Although the Federation Council has the power to review and force compromise on legislation, in practice its role has been primarily as a consultative and reviewing body. In the 1990s, the Federation Council was made up of the heads of government and the legislative leaders of the 89 subnational jurisdictions into which Russia is divided. In 2000 Putin increased his control of the Federation Council by replacing ex-officio membership with a process of appointment by the president. The Duma can vote no-confidence in a sitting government, but the president can ignore the vote and dissolve the Duma if a second such vote is taken within three months. Changes in the constitution require a two-thirds vote in the Duma.

Russia is divided into 89 subnational jurisdictions, each of which has two representatives in the Federation Council. In March 2004, the Constitution was amended to permit the merger of two of the 89 region administrative units, effective in 2005; further consolidation is expected. These jurisdictions vary widely in size, composition, and nomenclature. They include 21 republics, 49 oblasts (provinces), six territories, 10 autonomous regions, one autonomous oblast, and two cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg) with separate oblast status. The autonomous regions and the autonomous oblast are parts of larger subnational jurisdictions. Within the 89 jurisdictions, the next-largest jurisdictional level is the rayon, which is approximately equivalent to a county in the United States.

The chief executive of all 89 jurisdictions is the governor. In December 2004, the selection method of governors was changed, increasing the power of the national executive over subnational governments. Instead of direct popular election in the jurisdiction, governors now are nominated by the president, then appointed by the jurisdiction's legislature. The legislature can reject a nominee, but after three rejections the president can dissolve the legislature. In 2005 all of President Putin's more than 30 nominees were approved immediately by the respective legislatures.

In a first step toward overcoming the complexity of this system, in 2000 all of Russia was divided into seven federal districts: Central, Far East, North Caucasus, Northwest, Siberia, Urals, and Volga. The seven federal districts have governors who are appointed by the president, with presidential appointees established in Moscow and six provincial capitals.

Although Russia had committed to thorough reform of the rubber-stamp Soviet judicial system, progress in that direction has been slow. Federal judges are nominated by assemblies of judges and approved by the president. The Ministry of Justice administers the judicial system, naming judges and establishing courts below the federal level. However, in the 1990s many judges remained from the Soviet system, and the judiciary became a roadblock for reform programs such as privatization and improved human rights. The independence and professionalism of judges have been damaged by the minimal pay they have received, and funding of the judicial system has been problematic. Although salaries had increased substantially by 2005, bribery of judges remains a frequent practice. Corruption is widespread throughout society, a conclusion supported by domestic opinion surveys, and was extensive in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the federal and regional levels of government. Manifestations included bribery of officials, misuse of budgetary resources, theft of government property, kickbacks in the procurement process, extortion, and official collusion in criminal acts. International organizations gave the country poor marks on corruption issues. In an October 2006 Transparency International report, the country received a score of 2.5 on the organization's 10 point index of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among a country's politicians and public officials, indicating a perception that the country has a serious corruption problem.

Suffrage is universal, and the minimum voting age is 18. Elections are organized and overseen by the 15-member Central Election Commission. The president, the State Duma, and the Federation Council each appoint five commission members to four-year terms. According to the constitution, the chairman of that commission, since 1999 Aleksandr Veshnyakov, is third in Russia's leadership line behind the president and the prime minister. The 89 subnational jurisdictions have equivalent commissions, which in turn oversee some 2,700 regional election commissions.

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