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Financial Times, By Robert Cottrell in Moscow

Russian parties face shake-up

January 15, 2001

A bill to change radically the landscape of Russian party politics awaits the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, when it returns on Monday for its spring session.

The bill was sent to the parliament by President Vladimir Putin during the Christmas recess. It proposes allowing only parties with at least 10,000 members to register legally and to compete in national and regional elections.

Registered parties would have to maintain branches of at least 100 members in at least 45 of the country's 89 regions. Parties winning more than 3 per cent of the national vote could claim state funding.

At present, Russia has almost 200 political parties, most of them tiny and many dormant. A total of 26 parties and alliances contested the last Duma elections in December 1999. Probably all save a handful would disappear if, as seems highly likely, Mr Putin's bill becomes law.

The survivors would certainly include the Communists, still Russia's biggest political party.

Others to qualify would probably include Unity, the pro-Kremlin bloc in the Duma; Fatherland, a conservative bloc; and perhaps the far-right Liberal Democratic party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Yabloko, the centre-right party led by Grigory Yavlinsky, could also qualify. But some think the new bill will help bring about a long-discussed merger between Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, a liberal alliance whose leaders include Boris Nemtsov, Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais.

Duma leaders are likely to decide on Tuesday to give the bill a first reading around February 1. Backing from the big parties should ensure that it passes.

The main opposition to the bill has come from an independent Duma deputy, Vladimir Ryzhkov, who has been trying to win support for a rival draft.

Mr Rizhkov says a membership threshold of 10,000 will block the formation of new parties in the future, and should be cut to 2,000. He fears Mr Putin's bill will give the government too much power to deny or withdraw registration on trivial bureaucratic grounds. But he has conceded that his chances of overturning it are "practically nil".

from www.ft.com

Financial Times, January 15, 2001