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The Moscow Times, December 3, 2003

From High Drama To Rubber Stamping

By Anna Dolgov

Coming a long way from the radical rabble-rousing of its predecessors, the State Duma that bows out with this Sunday's elections became the country's first Kremlin-controlled parliament. But the jury is still out on whether this legacy will be counted a merit or a fault.

To its detractors, the outgoing Duma is one that cemented President Vladimir Putin's grip on power and presided over Russia's transformation into a country in which the Kremlin decides all. For its supporters, it was the first Duma to put aside the infighting of the 1990s and pass a series of sensible economic reforms.

The Communists, who dominated the Duma during President Boris Yeltsin's tenure and blocked many of his reforms, were still the largest faction when the Duma was elected in December 1999. But a switch by two lawmakers to the Unity faction in early 2001 allowed pro-Kremlin forces to tie with the Communists, and the merger between Unity and its allies from the Fatherland-All Russia bloc later that year established a pro-Kremlin majority.

"It is clear to everybody that the Duma is controlled by the Kremlin," said Nikolai Petrov, a domestic politics analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The high drama that marked the previous Duma -- including Yeltsin's theatrical squabbles with deputies, an attempt to impeach him initiated by the Communists, and the Kremlin's threats to disband the legislature -- has been superceded by far smoother passage for presidential bills. "We haven't had these [Yeltsin-era] problems with the new president," Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov told reporters Friday, after the wrap-up session that passed a flurry of Kremlin-inspired laws.

But while a malleable parliament may have helped Putin achieve his short-term goals, the substitution of a critical legislature with a rubber-stamping one leaves the Kremlin without a safeguard against mistakes over the longer run, analysts warned. "This brings trouble not only for citizens, but also for the Kremlin," Petrov said. By creating "the current manageable Duma, the Kremlin has removed a fool-proofing system. It has set itself up," he said.

The three pro-Kremlin parties that merged into the coalition party United Russia -- Unity, Fatherland-All Russia and Russia's Regions -- have consistently backed a wide variety of presidential bills, from increased spending on the security forces to importing spent nuclear fuel.

Opposition to Kremlin-sponsored laws came largely from the small liberal factions, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, while the Communists alternately sided with pro- and anti-Kremlin forces.

The opposition also steadily lost ground in parliamentary committees, with the Communists stripped of eight chairmanships in a 2002 reshuffle.

But many economic reforms that sailed through the Duma in the past four years have earned international praise.

The Duma passed bills streamlining Russia's stifling tax system and cutting income tax to a flat rate of 13 percent, and passed zero-deficit or surplus budgets for each year since 2001. This year it passed more sweeping tax cuts, mostly by lowering value added tax.

"I think the current Duma is the most businesslike and professional of all the three Dumas in which I have worked," said Oleg Morozov, leader of the Russia's Regions faction. "During the past four years, nearly all of the economic laws have been adopted to guide the life of the country not for years but for decades."

But along with liberal economic reforms, the Duma endorsed a series of bills with a more authoritarian flavor, from tightening Moscow's control over the regions and parties to reinstating the Soviet-era music of the national anthem.

In one of his first actions as president, Putin pushed through a bill that stripped governors of their immunity-giving seats on the Federation Council and replaced them with full-time representatives. In spring 2001, deputies passed a bill imposing tougher qualification rules for political parties in national elections.

The Duma also approved a bill allowing Russia to import spent nuclear fuel for storage and reprocessing, despite protests that it would turn the country into a nuclear dump.

For the opposition, the outgoing Duma will be remembered as one that passed pro-big business legislation yet did little to combat social ills. "The Duma has approved an array of bills that have negatively affected the life of the majority of Russians," Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin said Friday.


See also:

the original at

Elections to the State Duma, 2003

The Moscow Times, December 3, 2003

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