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By Yevgeny Zherebenkov

The Quiet Duma

Itogi, No. 36, September 2001, pp. 20-23

The 2002 draft budget submitted by the Cabinet, together with a whole package of unfinished bills, await Duma deputies. By the end of the year the Duma is supposed to adopt the Labour Code in the second reading and Land Code in the third and continue its work on pension reforms and tax-related legislation. The new budget is calculated with new tax tariffs already, and the most important issue of pension reforms has still to be resolved where will the money be accumulated and who will control the money that Russians stash away against old age. Clearly the deputies will be prevented this time from focussing solely on their pet subject: the cutting up of the budget pie. The Kremlin and the Cabinet have warned the Duma sternly that the budget should be adopted without any fuss. Any dissenting voices should beware. The executive branch is keeping a couple of cards up its sleeve. Literally any moment it may propose the abolition of Duma committees and im! provements to the structure of the lower house of parliament.

It isn't hard to see who will be the first to be told to vacate Duma committees. The Cabinet no longer needs to bother with compromises with the Communist Party for the sake of the budget. Moreover, the Fatherland - All Russia faction is going to become much more obedient, now that Yevgeny Primakov is leaving the faction. On the other hand, some bargaining will take place all the same.

We talked to some prominent deputies to discuss the new political season. Communist functionaries were the only ones to officially decline our invitation.

QUESTION: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT WILL BE THE FOCUS OF THE MOST HEATED DEBATES IN THE DUMA?

Irina Khakamada, Duma Deputy Speaker, Union of Right-Wing Forces: Discussion of the budget and the second reading of the Labour Code will be particularly difficult. The government wants the budget to be adopted "without any bargaining" but I don't think that this is possible. The Duma is bound to decide that anticipated revenues are artificially underestimated. Naturally deputies are not going to turn down the budget and run the risk of disbandment of the Duma, but some fighting is bound to occur.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Duma Deputy Speaker, LDPR: The budget will be adopted as well as all other draft laws forwarded by the government. Sure, deputies will make some noise at first, but don't expect anything serious. Communists will make a fuss over the outcome of the gubernatorial election in Rostov region, other deputies might raise the issuer of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Lensk. The right will demand a parliamentary panel in connection with publication of excerpts from defector Litvinenko's book by the Novaya Gazeta. Nothing extraordinary, in other words.

The government controls 250 votes in the Duma which makes adoption of the budget an inevitability. Of course, the situation may become tricky if the LDPR decided to withdraw its votes and the Russian Regions and the People's Deputy were struck by indecision. On the other hand, this is the only draft budget we are going to get. Nobody will give us another one.

Gennadi Raikov, the People's Deputy Group: This is the first such budget in the country. The government suggests almost doubling its revenues to form reserves against the 2003 problem. We consider the decision absolutely correct. On the other hand, there are nuances in the draft budget that we disagree with - a great deal of federal programmes are to become history, the budget ratio of the centre/regions is clearly lopsided. I think the ratio will become the focus of some heated discussions. The government will be traditionally blamed for intentionally concealing revenues. The work on the budget will be difficult. All the same, the major postulates of the governmental draft budget will be adopted. After thanking the government for the budget and forwarding it to the Duma on time, the president made it clear that he would not even contemplate the disbandment of the Cabinet if the budget were to be turned down.

Sergei Ivanenko, deputy leader of the Yabloko faction: I have no doubt that the budget will be adopted. Notwithstanding the intrigues and the bargaining, voting is always a political issue related to confidence in the government. The political structure of the Duma is such that it is loyal to the president and the government. Precisely for this reason the budget battles that really count will take place behind the scenes and not in the conference hall. The outcome of the eventual ballot will be what the government wants.

Vladimir Pekhtin, Unity faction leader: We will back the government parameters of the budget. If and when additional revenues do appear, we will decide what is to be done with them and how they are to be used and controlled when the day comes. Of course, adoption of the budget and other vital draft laws will be accompanied by serious discussions and debates, but discussions should be constructive. Unfortunately, it is impossible to seek compromises or even argue with the left these days. You can only argue with someone who is prepared to agree with you on at least something.

QUESTION: SHOULD WE EXPECT CHANGES IN THE DUMA STRUCTURE AND ITS SENIOR POSITIONS?

Khakamada: Gennadi Seleznev will retain his post, but redistribution and reduction of Duma committees is quite possible. But only with the Kremlin's blessing. It will mean in the long run that the Kremlin doesn't want to dismiss the Duma.

Zhirinovsky: Blah, blah, blah. Nothing of the kind is going to happen. This is the best possible Duma for the Kremlin, the presidential administration has never yet had so loyal a Duma. The presidential administration should cherish this Duma because another one might be worse. Naturally, structural changes are needed. The apparatus is too bulky. Why keep 2,000 officials? Seven hundred would suffice... It is time Seleznev stepped down, we need someone else in his place. He'd have gone away long ago but he doesn't have anywhere to go. Again, everything will depend on how Unity reaches agreement with the Communists.

Raikov: Reduction in the number of Duma committees is still on the agenda. By the way, the initiative was put forth by our group. The coordinating committee of four factions and groups resolved to return to the matter after the vacation. I would not want tension artificially escalated around it. We are not out to punish anyone or anything. We merely want to upgrade the culture of the Duma's work.

Ivanenko: The proposals to improve the Duma structure are correct of course and we are prepared to back them. It doesn't really matter what the Yabloko may expect to gain. The existing structure is truly ineffective... On the other hand, I don't think we should expect any changes on a truly grand scale.

Pekhtin: There are too many committees in the Duma indeed. Some of them may be merged.

QUESTION: DO YOU THINK THIS DUMA WILL LAST ITS TERM?

Khakamada: The Kremlin may have its own reasons for wanting to disband the Duma, but the Constitution states it may be done on two occasions only a vote of no-confidence in the government and repeated refusal to endorse the prime minister. Clearly, there is the problem of putting a gap between the presidential and parliamentary elections (or removing it, on the contrary) but this issue could be resolved without disbanding the Duma.

Zhirinovsky: The Duma should be allowed to work to the end of its term and even beyond to make sure that the presidential and parliamentary elections take place at the same time in March 2004. Otherwise the electoral campaign will last nine months from August 2003 to April 2004.

Raikov: I think it will. Why not? There are no reasons to disband the Duma. The president appreciates our work.

Ivanenko: Despite the stabilization, it is more difficult to make forecasts for the next two years in Russia than it is to make them for 50 years in Europe. I cannot see any reasons for disbanding the Duma at this point. Presidential and parliamentary elections and the question of whether or not they should be organized together is not a reason. It is rather a wish of some political technologists in the Kremlin's employ.

Pekhtin: We plan to work until our terms expire. There is too much work to be done. I do hope there will be no emergencies that could necessitate early parliamentary elections.

Itogi, No. 36, September 2001, pp. 20-23

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