Writing in the Moscow Times Andrei Kolesnikov, a deputy editor of The New Times, explains the Russian pattern of simply ignoring the law. In light of this, the Kremlin’s opposition to the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi to face trial in the killing of Alexander Litvinenko seems simply insane — that is, fully neo-Soviet.
Every Russian or Soviet leader changes the structure of government to serve his own tactical interests. It’s highly unlikely that Nikita Khrushchev, NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria or Georgy Malenkov, chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, thought too much about observing the spirit and letter of the Soviet Constitution of 1936 when they divided power right after the death of Josef Stalin.
When Beria needed to centralize power by strengthening the role of the Council of Ministers, a simple resolution was enough to accomplish this. In order to deprive Beria of his authority, however, the other two members of the triumvirate had to use other means — arrest.
In 1957, Khrushchev tried to weaken the concentration of power in the Kremlin that Beria had instituted by introducing the Regional Economic Councils. This was an attempt to decentralize the federal ministries by creating 105 regional zones to improve local planning and management. In 1958, Khrushchev became a head of the government.
When Khrushchev’s opponents ousted him in 1964, they once again changed the government structure. A new triumvirate later emerged: Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikolai Podgorny, chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet and Leonid Brezhnev. Although Podgorny was formally the main figure in the Soviet government, the de facto leader of the country was Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party. It took Article 6 of the 1977 Constitution to codify this new distribution of power into law.
In 1988, when the Communist Party’s power was gradually fading, Mikhail Gorbachev concentrated power in the parliament and combined the positions of general secretary and head of the Supreme Soviet. A new model of government was necessary, and in 1990, the position of president of the Soviet Union was introduced, which was not provided for in the 1977 Constitution.
Throughout the 1990s, it was impossible to rely on laws to rule the country. Russia was instead ruled by presidential and Cabinet decrees.
Legal contradictions have never been an obstacle for Russian and Soviet leaders to change the structure of government and how power is allocated. There is no model that cannot be invented or manipulated in order to decide the main issue for a leader — how to preserve his power. The only requirement is the political will to push a new model through.
History has shown that coups, conspiracies, plots and revolutions are often carried out under the pretexts of restoring law and order. And when leaders try to achieve “stability” by manipulating the laws to increase their own power, this is fraught with tremendous political risk.