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The Moscow Times, February 19, 2004

Group of 5 Deputies Tries to Find Its Voice

By Caroline McGregor

Five liberal-minded deputies banded together Wednesday to make their voices heard in State Duma debates dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Announcing the formation of an independent coalition, Mikhail Zadornov told reporters that the deputies would work "to make political discussion in the Duma more real and the Duma's political structure more balanced."

Zadornov, together with Vladimir Ryzhkov, Sergei Popov, Viktor Pokhmelkin, and Galina Khovanskaya, were left to fend for themselves when their obvious allies, leading liberal-democratic parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, failed to win seats in December's parliamentary elections.

Providing a counterbalance to United Russia, which controls some 306 seats and every committee chair, will be difficult because the coalition has no formal status.

Under the Duma's new leadership, regulations have been changed to increase from 35 to 55 the number of deputies needed to form a deputy group.

A group has special voting and debate rights.

Pokhmelkin expressed frustration with such "antidemocratic actions."

His electoral bloc, New Course-Automotive Russia, floundered in the Dec. 7 elections, but Pokhmelkin, like the others, won a single-mandate seat.

Even the 35-member minimum would have been hard to reach in the 450-seat Duma.

Only 15 of the 23 deputies elected as independents remain outside Duma factions.

There had been hope that a liberal group could reach critical mass, but that would have been possible only if United Russia had agreed to donate some of its members to the cause.

Then the opposite happened when some independents were absorbed by United Russia in return for various perks.

"United Russia deputies are more constrained than we are," Khovanskaya said, trying to find a silver lining. "We each have a vote, while all together they only have one."

Zadornov, a Yabloko member and former finance minister, was optimistic that the new coalition would soon swell to about 10 deputies, saying that "negotiations are under way."

There is strength in numbers in Duma sessions, where "everything is truly programmed," and even getting recognized to speak requires a long series of official requests, Khovanskaya said.

Only Popov, she noted, has successfully gotten the floor, having spoken in support of the appointment of his Yabloko colleague Vladimir Lukin as human rights ombudsman.

Popov said the group would push to lower the unified social tax and improve the Housing Code, adding that its contribution would come on the margins as it shares its expertise on certain issues with colleagues. Khovanskaya, a former Moscow City Duma deputy, is, for one, a specialist on housing problems.

Coalition members are free to vote as they wish, but not everyone -- for example, Sergei Glazyev, the embattled co-leader of the nationalist Rodina faction -- would be welcomed, Pokhmelkin said.


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The Moscow Times, February 19, 2004

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