| Several rather depressed-looking Russian lawmakers gathered
around a table
Wednesday to discuss what the country's parliament has managed to achieve
in its 10-year existence -- and most agreed they have simply worked as
The State Duma lower house of parliament faces re-election on Sunday
its fourth post-Soviet session marked by a campaign season of muted public
debate and seemingly limited interest among voters.
The pro-Kremlin United Russia party and its allies are widely expected
win. Meanwhile liberal groups like Yabloko that tried hard to build a
Western democracy here over the past decade are on the verge of falling
under the five-percent barrier needed for automatic Duma qualification.
Deputies who have been in parliament for much of the past decade agreed
meet with reporters in the Duma on the eve of Sunday's vote to discuss
what the chamber's function actually is and whether lawmakers have learned
any post-Soviet lessons.
The outcome Wednesday was not pretty on two fronts: Almost none of those
who were invited to the roundtable showed up -- another confirmation of
partial disenfranchisement with Russia's young democratic process.
And those who did for the large part conceded that the latest Duma was
frightened of President Vladimir Putin to form an opinion of its own.
The gloomy agreement reached by most Wednesday was that Russia's parliament
had few powers to begin with -- and that it has managed to cede even those
to Putin's administration over the past four years.
"The Duma is losing its ability to keep the executive branch in
check," said Alexei
Arbatov, a widely-respected Yabloko member who serves as deputy head
of the chamber's defense committee.
Arbatov said he had few doubts that Putin's aides were orchestrating
election's results and brushed aside suggestions that Russia has made
progress toward a Western-style democracy since the Soviet Union's collapse
"In our country, the government forms the parliamentary majority
-- so it
is a joke to say that we are moving toward a European model of forming
state," Arbatov said.
This criticism has in fact been tempered by more bullish Western economists.
Many investors have praised the outgoing Duma for passing economic reforms
-- proposed by the Kremlin -- that included simplifications to the
draconian tax laws and the right for Russians to own land for the first
time since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
"For the first time, we have seen (in the outgoing Duma) the positions
the parliamentary majority and the Kremlin converge. This is a significant
step forward," agreed Vladimir Lysenko of the pro-Putin Russian Regions
But Lysenko noted that this agreement came at a price: He alleged that
Kremlin officials were paying off Duma deputies for votes and that
corruption was running rampant in Russia's law-making body.
"We have moved away from a period of romanticizing about democracy
realm of corruption -- and that is why the Duma's authority is falling,"
Such self-criticism is poignant on the eve of elections and not all
present took it to heart.
The former head of Russia's constitutional court -- an old friend of
leader Boris Yeltsin who put the Duma in its place by drafting the new
Kremlin-heavy constitution -- said lawmakers were simply shying away from
"It is a shame to hear deputies complain about their limited powers,"
Vladimir Tumanov. "They refuse to take matters into their own hands."
Instead Tumanov blamed the Duma of sitting around and passing laws just
make it seem like they are doing work -- striking away legislation that
body itself passed only months before.
"They take credit for passing thousands of laws a year -- but most
are just amendments to previously-passed legislation," the graying
Russian chief justice complained.
"We are getting nowhere like this," he said.
the original at
State Duma elections 2003