Semi-presidentialism in the FSU – When did it begin?

The Former Soviet Union (FSU) is the home of a number of semi-presidential countries. In terms of their current constitutions, there are some unequivocal cases of semi-presidentialism: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Russia and Ukraine. Previously, Moldova was unequivocally semi-presidential too. The situation in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is a little more ambiguous. In both cases, parliament ratifies the president’s decrees that appoint and dismiss the prime minister. It is debatable as to whether this is sufficient to constitute a semi-presidential constitution. The level of responsibility to parliament is low and, in any case, responsibility is only individual and not collective.

Sticking to the unequivocal cases, the question is when do we date the start of semi-presidentialism? In the case of Georgia, the answer is easy. As per a previous post, it became semi-presidential in 2004 after a constitutional amendment. For the other countries, the dates of the first independence constitutions are as follows: Armenia (1995), Azerbaijan (1995), Belarus (1994), Kazakhstan (1993), Kyrgyzstan (1993), Lithuania (1992), Moldova (1994), Russia (1993) and Ukraine (1996).

While these are the dates of the first constitutions, it is common to think of semi-presidentialism starting earlier. This is because in the period immediately following the declaration of independence, and prior to the passage of the new constitution, most of these countries grafted a directly elected president onto the existing Soviet-era constitution. So, for example, the first presidential elections under Soviet-era constitutions were held as follows: Armenia (1991), Azerbaijan (1992), Kazakhstan (1991), Kyrgyzstan (1991), Moldova (1991), Russia (1991) and Ukraine (1991). Given these constitutions were, nominally, parliamentary, this combination of a direct presidential election and a parliamentary system seems to create the conditions for semi-presidentialism. (In Belarus and Lithuania, the first direct presidential elections took place under the first independence constitution. So, there is no doubt about when they began to be semi-presidential.)

All the same, I think we have to be a little careful as to when we date the beginning of semi-presidentialism and for two reasons. Firstly, I am not sure that there are consolidated constitutional documents prior to the passage of the first constitutions. Certainly, I have been unable to find them. If they do exist, then please let me know where to get hold of them. In the absence of a consolidated document, it is to difficult to verify the start date of semi-presidentialism. Secondly, even if there were consolidated documents, would they indicate semi-presidentialism? According to the 1978 constitutions of the socialist republics of the USSR, it is certainly the case that the Council of Ministers was responsible to the parliament (Supreme Soviet) and that there was a person who occupied the position of Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Moreover, prime ministers certainly existed in the newly independent countries from an early point: Armenia (1990), Azerbaijan (1991), Kazakhstan (1991), Kyrgyzstan (1991), Moldova (1990), Russia (1991) and Ukraine (1990). Again, though, in the absence of consolidated documents, it is difficult to verify the specific start date of semi-presidentialismism. Were there other amendments to the constitution apart from just the direct election of the president? Were there changes to the status of the prime minister and cabinet? And so on.

The precise start date of semi-presidentialism can be important because a couple of these countries experienced a brief period of democracy but then collapsed. For example, according to Freedom House Azerbaijan was a partial democracy in 1991 and 1992, but collapsed in 1993. The same is true for Kazakhstan from 1991-93 before its collapse in 1994. Studies about the positive or negative effects of semi-presidentialism on partial democracies do not have a large number of cases to go on. Therefore, the decision about whether or not to include two collapses is potentially important. If anyone has any comments, then please let me know.

2 thoughts on “Semi-presidentialism in the FSU – When did it begin?

  1. Reed Rasband

    Hello there,
    If you are interested, a consolidated text of the Ukrainian constitution as amended up to 1994 is available from World Constitutions Illustrated within the Heinonline database. Relevant articles:
    Article 114-3: “The President of Ukraine is elected for a five-year term by the citizens of Ukraine on the basis of general, equal, and direct voting rights by secret ballot.”
    Article 114-5: “The President shall: … 6) propose for confirmation by the Supreme Rada of Ukraine the candidacy for the Prime-Minister of Ukraine and shall submit proposals to the Supreme Rada of Ukraine for the dismissal from office of the Prime-Minister of Ukraine. 7) propose for confirmation by the Supreme Rada of Ukraine the candidacies his appointments for the offices of ministers of [list of cabinet members]; removes such persons from office ”
    Article 117: “The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine shall be subordinate to the President and shall be accountable to and responsible to the Supreme Rada of Ukraine. … The Supreme Rada of Ukraine may express no-confidence in the Prime-Minister of Ukraine, individual members of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, or in the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine as a whole; all of which carry the subsequent resignation of those individuals.”
    These seem to show that Ukraine has been semipresidential since at least 1994 (two years earlier than your current listing). The source lists all of the amendments between 1990 and 1994, but does not specify which changes correspond to each amendment.
    Hope this is of use to you!

    1. Robert Elgie Post author

      Thanks. It has been a while since I was searching for constitutions. I didn’t have this material. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t tell us when semi-presidentialism was introduced. Which amendments to the 1978 constitution introduced direct election and collective cabinet responsibility? Was it 1991 or 1992? I don’t have the texts to know, or the language skills even if I did have them. In addition, my understanding is that there was a ‘mini-constitution’ in 1995 that effectively made Ukraine presidential for a period before the 1996 constitution, though the constitutionality of the mini-constitution was doubted. So, that is why I still record 1996.

      In general, my rule is that I take the start date from the texts that I can confirm. So, in a lot of the FSU countries there is no doubt that semi-presidentialism was legally and constitutionally introduced before the dates that I have recorded, as in Ukraine. However, until I have the texts to confirm the start dates, then I go with the date that I can confirm.

      Thanks again.


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