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St Peterburg Times

Proposed Law Could Eradicate Most Parties


#629, Friday, December 15, 2000

MOSCOW - The Central Elections Commission is pushing for a new law on political parties that would slash the number of existing political groups by over 90 percent, leaving only a dozen or so major players and barring the rest from participating in parliamentary elections.

If passed, the legislation would wipe out scores of small, regional political groups and could force many organizations - including the likes of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces - to forge strategic alliances that would ensure their survival.

The draft law introduces the legal concept of a "political party" and establishes it as the only entity allowed to put forward candidates to the State Duma or local legislatures, Yelena Dubrovina, a CEC official and head of a working group on the bill, said in an interview last week.

A political party, as defined by the draft law, must have at least 10,000 members nationwide and branch offices with no fewer than 100 members each registered in at least 45 regions, Dubrovina said. Now, no such limitations exist for political groups.

The proposed law would give organizations two years to reregister as parties, Dubrovina said. Otherwise, they will lose the right to put forward candidates for parliamentary seats.

The limitations proposed in the bill would apply only to those seats in the Duma and local legislative assemblies that are distributed via party lists; the remaining deputies will continue to be elected from so-called single-mandate districts and will not need to be members of a political party. In the State Duma, half of its 450 deputies are elected through each method.

CEC Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has said he hopes the law would cut the number of political organizations by a factor of 10 - ostensibly, leaving fewer than 20 of the 188 groups registered today.

Dubrovina was convinced all factions in the State Duma would be able to transform into parties during the two-year grace period. "They will have to work hard to get their organizations in shape, but I'm sure they can make it," she said.

But Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank, was less optimistic.

"I'm sure the Communists will make it, because of the network they inherited from the Soviet Communist party," he said. "Unity will be able to do it thanks to its huge administrative resources and Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats will simply buy 10,000 people. The rest - I'm not so sure."

While the majority of Duma factions have supported the idea of limiting

participation in elections to political parties, several of them oppose the new membership requirement.

The most vocal critics have been Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS - each of which were estimated by Pribylovsky to have around 5,000 members.

"It [the bill] is an artificial method of clearing the playing field," Yab lo ko's representative to the working group, Alexander Shishlov, said in a telephone interview last week. Shish lov said the main criterion for becoming a party should be a political group's ability to generate voter support - not membership.

Even Unity's representative to the working group, Alexander Chuyev, called the 10,000-member requirement "problematic." He said in a telephone interview that his faction would try to get the figure reduced to 5,000 to 7,000.

The CEC's Dubrovina said one of the bill's aims is to ensure that parties stay politically active on a federal level and don't limit themselves to lobbying narrow interests: To these ends, the bill stipulates that a party which doesn't participate in State Duma elections at least once every eight years could have its registration rescinded.

"This will force them to recruit new members, keep in touch with their electorate and be far more active on a daily basis - and not just to come out of hibernation before elections," she said.

The law would put an end to the numerous regional political groups, Dubrovina said, calling them nothing more than "governors' pet parties, made to keep them in power."

But Boris Nadezhdin, the SPS representative to the working group, warned that regions stripped of their local parties could become unstable. As an example, he pointed to the republic of Dagestan, where political stability has traditionally hinged on unwritten quotas ensuring the participation of all ethnic groups in local government.

"If these people will now be able to vote in local or regional elections only for federal parties, we could easily end up with all the Avars joining Unity, all the Lezgins joining the Communist Party, etc. This is not just illogical, it's dangerous."

Panorama's Pribylovsky saw the bill's greatest danger in its requirement that parties must disclose the names of their members - if, for example, they are suspected of massaging membership figures.

"That could scare many people away [from political participation]," Pribylovsky said. "It's a highly undemocratic stipulation."

Some political groups also oppose the CEC's call for a modicum of state funding to be distributed among parties on the basis of election results.

The draft law is expected to be endorsed by the working group - made up of representatives from major Duma factions and the CEC - after one more session sometime before the winter holidays. Then it will be sent to the president, who is expected to present it to the Duma by the end of the month. The CEC is hoping the Duma will consider the bill in a first reading before March, Dubrovina said. Concerns and conflicting opinions notwithstanding, most politicians and observers agree that a law on parties is needed - but it remains to be seen whether the CEC's version will suit the majority of them in its final form.

"It's generally a sensible law," Yabloko's Shishlov said. "It could make Russia go toward decentralization and the development of civil society, but it could also push it towards the total centralization of political life and growing government influence on it.

"The devil is in the details, and the details will not be known before the second reading."

St Peterburg Times , December 15, 2000