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AFP, December 3, 2003

Russia's gloomy lawmakers admit decade of Kremlin domination

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 a Kremlin vassal.

The State Duma lower house of parliament faces re-election on Sunday for 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 to 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 to meet with reporters in the Duma on the eve of Sunday's vote to discuss just 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 too 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 the election's results and brushed aside suggestions that Russia has made major progress toward a Western-style democracy since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

"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 a 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 of the parliamentary majority and the Kremlin converge. This is a significant step forward," agreed Vladimir Lysenko of the pro-Putin Russian Regions group.

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 into the realm of corruption -- and that is why the Duma's authority is falling," he said.

Such self-criticism is poignant on the eve of elections and not all those present took it to heart.

The former head of Russia's constitutional court -- an old friend of former leader Boris Yeltsin who put the Duma in its place by drafting the new Kremlin-heavy constitution -- said lawmakers were simply shying away from their responsibilities.

"It is a shame to hear deputies complain about their limited powers," said Vladimir Tumanov. "They refuse to take matters into their own hands."

Instead Tumanov blamed the Duma of sitting around and passing laws just to make it seem like they are doing work -- striking away legislation that the body itself passed only months before.

"They take credit for passing thousands of laws a year -- but most of these are just amendments to previously-passed legislation," the graying former Russian chief justice complained.

"We are getting nowhere like this," he said.


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State Duma elections 2003

AFP, December 3, 2003

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