"Unfortunately, l'Etat, c'est moi..."

I had the opportunity to meet Vladimir Putin many times during his first term as president. The impression I gained - confirmed by people working closely with him - is that that he is not a man who likes power for its own sake. He won it unexpectedly and has little ambition to keep it at any cost. Indeed, I doubt he views the ruling elite's manifestations of love for him with anything but irony. If he does continue to exercise influence after the March elections, it will not be because of a lust for authority, but because Russia has yet to develop an adequate mechanism for the succession of power.

So what has made the `transfer of power' so critical for the ruling elite? It can be explained predominantly by the fact that the President has come to control all of the informal relationships of power and property among the elite. Due to Putin's explicit aim of building a strong "power vertical," the presidency has a much greater significance today than was the case with Yeltsin eight years ago. One could compare the President's current predicament to that of a head of a national bank who controls all of its key receipts and major transactions. Naturally, if such a person were to leave the bank, his or her departure would be seen as disastrous. In fact, Putin's departure will not only disrupt the state of affairs on the federal level, but even on the regional one. This is also due to his centralization of power: changes at the top currently alter agreements even at the lowest levels. This is the gist of the problem that Russia faces today.

Did things have to turn out this way? In the early 1990s, Russia attempted to build a system of checks and balances, but out of the three branches - executive, legislative and judiciary - only the executive branch met the challenge. Naturally, strong institutions eventually take over the functions of weaker ones. This development is not without parallel in world practice. Italy, for example, has competent courts, but weak administration. As a result, Italian courts assume some functions of the executive.

In Russia, the courts are very weak, and it is not yet fully understood how to make them stronger. As for parliament, its fate was decided by the 1999 parliamentary elections, when the party that came to power (and later formed the core of United Russia) had only one program: to support the president. That proved enough for most ordinary citizens, who felt that conflict between the executive and legislative branches was destructive, rather than constructive.

In other words, Russian voters turned parliament into a sort of "supporting structure" for the executive branch. And, again, this parallels past events. Throughout Russia's history, parliament has proved to be not only a weak institution, but an unworkable one. It has been dissolved and "domesticated" by everyone from Nicholas II to Yeltsin; one has only to remember Yeltsin's notorious bombardment of the Congress of People's Deputies in 1993.

Of course, there is no quick fix for these problems. One is left with the impression that, for the moment, Russia is left facing another uncertain period of history: of two czars heading one state.

Vitali Naishul is President of the Institute for the Study of Russian Economy (ISRE), and one of the authors of the liberal economic reform

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