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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Russia

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: January 2014

Government and Politics

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia became a semi-presidential federal republic. The constitution, introduced in 1993, sets out the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government of the new Russian republic. It grants a substantial amount of power to the president, something the current president, Vladimir Putin, has not been shy in exploiting. Though the situation is better than during the Soviet era, Russia has remained an authoritarian state and is becoming more so.

Ostensibly, the presidential election is by universal adult suffrage; it takes place every six years. The electoral system, based on the French, is first-past-the-post and consists of two rounds. A candidate who obtains an absolute majority in the first round is immediately declared president. If there is no absolute majority, the two candidates with the most votes in the first round go through to a second round. Since 2000 and the ascendancy of Putin, there have been no second rounds. In 2004, Putin was re-elected with 72% of the vote, a proportion that suggests a substantial degree of foul play.

The Russian legislative, the Federal Assembly, is bicameral. The lower house is the State Duma, whose 450 deputies are elected for five-year terms. As with the presidential elections, recent State Duma elections have been regarded as flawed by outside observers. The State Duma passes federal and constitutional laws, and has the power to appoint the Chairman of the Russian Central Bank and other dignitaries.

The upper house of the legislature, the Federation Council, consists of 166 deputies and represents the different regional divisions in the country. Of these, 50% are appointed by governors and 50% are elected by regional legislatures. The Federation Council approves or rejects the laws that have been passed by the State Duma. Each of the 89 political divisions has its own government. Though Russia is highly centralised, these governments do have certain powers, such as the ability to raise local taxes and control of the police.

The main political parties in Russia are United Russia (Centrist), the Communist Party (left-wing) and the Liberal Democratic Party or LDPR (far-right.) United Russia is the largest party – and currently the only one with any real chance of winning an election. Other parties, such as the People’s Freedom Party, have been denied even the chance to register and therefore field candidates in an election. In other words, political parties are allowed in Russia so long as they meet with official approval.

Under Putin, the political freedoms granted in the early post-Soviet era have been largely retracted. Though theoretically protected by constitutional guarantees, freedom of speech is severely limited in practice. The media is directly or indirectly controlled by the government, and websites that are critical of the authorities are likely to be shut down. The murder of Boris Nemtsov – the opposition leader and a vociferous critic of Putin – in February 2015, speaks volumes about the attitude of those in power to dissidents.


Legal Systems

Derived mainly from the German federal constitution, the Russian legal system is a civil law system, though aspects of Tsarist and Soviet law are still in place. The constitution guarantees the judiciary independence of action and freedom from executive interference. However, under the current government. this has not always been respected. For example, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky was just one of those who have been tried for no reason other than being a political opponent of the government.

The highest court in Russia is the Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal and oversees all other judicial activity. It is supplemented in this by the Constitutional Court, which consists of 19 judges and clarifies disputes involving constitutional matters. The higher courts are more likely to see political interference, especially in criminal cases. Lower courts, where judges are appointed by regional governors, are generally trusted by the populace.




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