The end of the era of presidents
By Boris Kagarlitsky
MOSCOW — The election on June 23 for the newly created post of president of Belarus signalled dramatic changes in the political life of the former USSR. The ease with which anti-corruption campaigner Aleksandr Lukashenko outstripped the favoured candidate, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, showed clearly that one political cycle in the former republics of the Soviet Union is coming to an end, and another is beginning.
In Belarus as in other post-Soviet states, the post of president was created to benefit a particular leader — in this case former parliamentary speaker Stanislav Shushkevich — and to prepare the way for implementing a particular program. But the Belarus authorities were slow off the mark, and failed to introduce the presidency soon after their country was handed its independence at the end of 1991. Three years later, the unruly electors refused to vote as they were supposed to.
Even before the second round of voting, the situation in Belarus has changed irreversibly. Entrepreneurs are shifting their money abroad. Defeated politicians are castigating the people. In neighbouring republics political figures are studying the outcome, some seeking ways to repeat the "Belarus scenario", and others trying to work out how to avoid it.
This means that the era of presidents is coming to an end.
The post of president has been created in virtually all the republics of the former USSR. The key reason is that in a parliamentary republic, "Soviet-style privatisation" would have become bogged down even before it began. The reform strategy worked out by the International Monetary Fund required the use of the "heavy hand".
A ruthless authoritarian power was needed, ready to trample underfoot anyone who tried to stand in the way of reform. The authoritarian state had to protect property-owners from "lumpens"; at the same time, business needed at least a degree of legality, and certain guarantees.
Presidents were supposed to give authoritarian power a legal and "democratic" character. The president was a sort of legitimate dictator, whose rights and prerogatives were almost limitless. Invoking the will of the people, the president was empowered to crush the opposition and put parliaments "in their place".
The actions of the president were justified using references to "world experience" and "the example of civilised states". The truth is, however, that there is nothing standard or normal about the post-Soviet presidencies.
Although French and US presidents have extensive formal powers, these are limited not just by a strong parliament, but also through the mechanisms of a developed civil society. By contrast, the powers enjoyed by presidents in the post-Soviet republics put them somewhere between mafia godfathers and feudal princes.
These presidents share out property, regulate disputes between lesser bosses, put down revolts and control and protect the "common people". Neither parliamentary resolutions nor public opinion place any effective limits on their power.
The only weak link in this system is elections. When the anticommunist wave was at its height, it was easy to manipulate public opinion. Not a single election on the territory of the former USSR was really free. The mass information media were controlled by the authorities. The conditions which applied to various candidates were often sharply unequal, and major opposition forces were arbitrarily prevented from running.
At the same time, none of these elections was totally controlled. Some opposition candidates succeeded in registering for the ballot and even in obtaining broadcast time, and if the results were falsified, it was only to a moderate degree.
The lack of total control over the political process was not a major problem for the authorities until the cost of the economic reforms began to hit home. After that, moods changed. Sociologists now speak of a rising "left wave". On the walls of buildings, slogans such as the following are appearing: "Come back, Communists, we forgive you everything". Here and there, socialists are managing to organise. Even where leftists are unable to become a real alternative, "supporters of liberal reforms" are losing ground, and extreme right-wingers are gaining strength.
If elections are now a worrisome chink in the system's armour, why risk holding them? This was the suggestion floated during June by supporters of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, urging first that elections for the parliament, and then presidential elections, should be put back by two years. But after attracting little support, this proposal was quietly dropped.
An immediate source of concern to the elites is the fact that the post of president with unlimited powers, created in order to "move the reforms ahead", is itself posing real dangers. The concentration of power that has allowed the presidents to seize and divide up the "property of all the people" is now available to be used by other groups.
With the rise of Zhirinovsky, and now of Lukashenko, many reformers have begun to view the concept of the president-autocrat in a quite different light. Not only might the property be redistributed all over again, but the privatisers themselves could meet with an unpleasant fate.
This could still happen even if the new president were to remain true to the "model of reform". Along with the new boss will come new people, who will have to be rewarded and encouraged. The state property will already have been grabbed; property will have to be taken from the vanquished.
Under the Communist system, a change of bosses was always accompanied by a purge. If in Stalin's time disgraced comrades were shot, under Brezhnev and Gorbachev they were still being pensioned off. Any post-Soviet president now has far more power and far greater ability to wreak revenge on opponents than the last few general secretaries of the Communist Party. And there is no doubt that these abilities are being exercised.
For bosses and property-owners at all levels, a leadership change is no joke. A few per cent of the population "voting incorrectly", and the result is catastrophe. The identity of the new ruler is not so important; it is enough that the person should be new. When the new broom starts to sweep, the first to be whisked away will be yesterday's sweepers.
Today, the same forces that once mustered arguments to prove the advantages of the presidential system need to try to limit the powers of the presidency and, as far as possible, to do away with these powers. But it is already too late. Open dictatorship would not work, a return to the Soviet system is impossible, democracy is not the reformers' style, and the presidency has exhausted itself. Wherever the new elites turn, their path is blocked.
Any attempt to reorganise the system of power is fraught with shocks, and sooner or later this will lead to millions of ordinary citizens becoming involved in political struggles, defending their own rights and voicing their own demands.
It is not hard to foresee that these demands will ultimately be summed up in a single call for getting rid of both the "new" and "old" elites, and for making a fresh start with different reforms and a new system of rule — this time through people's own efforts, and on the basis of their own interests.