#15 - JRL 7235
June 23, 2003
Deputies Go Home With an Eye on Upcoming Elections
By Francesca Mereu
Special to The Moscow Times
After pushing through tax bills but failing to elect a new human rights commissioner, State Duma deputies wrapped up their spring session Saturday and headed home to woo voters before reconvening in the fall with the December elections in mind.
The session had been scheduled to end Friday but was extended by one day to allow deputies to vote in the crucial second reading on tax bills that the government considers essential for passage of the 2004 budget.
The term of human rights commissioner Oleg Mironov ran out May 22, but none of the eight candidates, including Mironov, received the necessary 300 votes in the 450-seat Duma on Saturday. Mironov will stay on until the Duma takes up the issue again in the fall.
The only excitement of the day came when Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov was interrupted by LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky as he was summing up the session in the late afternoon. Screaming, Zhirinovsky rushed the speaker's platform and demanded a last word to defend himself against a proposed inquiry by the Duma's ethics commission.
Boris Nadezhdin, deputy chair of the Union of Right Forces faction, earlier in the day had proposed that the ethics commission look into a statement Zhirinovsky made during Wednesday's no-confidence vote criticizing the Communists for not having joined Hitler during World War II to "conquer the world."
Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska called for order, and the Russian national anthem rang out to bring the session to a quick close.
Deputies from the pro-Kremlin coalition, who make up the majority, said they were satisfied with the results of the spring session.
"On the one hand, we were able to reduce taxes, but on the other hand we were able to find a solution to social problems by raising budget workers' salaries by 33 percent," Vyacheslav Volodin, leader of the Fatherland-All Russia faction, said in an interview.
Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Lukin of the Yabloko party did not agree. He said he could not recall any legislation the Duma passed to improve living standards, since "most legislators were thinking more about how to be re-elected in December than about people's well-being."
Vladimir Pribylovsky, of the Panorama think tank, agreed that during the spring session many deputies already had an eye on their re-election campaigns.
A clear example, he said, was the voting this spring on amendments to the law on the housing and communal services sector. The legislation contains several unpopular measures intended to change the system of subsidies.
Many deputies from the pro-Kremlin People's Deputy and Unity factions voted against the legislation in its first reading but then backed it in the second reading, or vice versa. Now, Pribylovsky said, when those deputies speak with voters they mention only that they voted against it, not specifying in which reading.
Seleznyov, speaking at a news conference in the Duma on Saturday, praised the Duma's productive work during the spring session. He said deputies considered 600 issues and passed more than 100 bills, roughly the same number passed in the fall session.
Among the most important, he said, were the new Customs Code and the overhaul of Unified Energy Systems.
Sergei Reshulsky of the Communist Party, however, said a session's success "cannot be judged by the quantity of laws passed but by their quality." In a brief interview, he singled out the legislation passed earlier this month that restricts media coverage of elections.
The Communists, Yabloko and Union of Right Forces voted against the legislation, saying it would give the authorities more power to influence election results and violate press freedom.
At the next Duma session, to begin Sept. 9, deputies will be debating next year's budget, and their actions are expected to be strongly influenced by their re-election campaigns.
Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said he is expecting "many populist bills and a hard budget process."
Yabloko has to play its cards well to make it over the 5 percent threshold in the elections to have its faction represented in the Duma, Pribylovsky said.
"If Yabloko thinks it is better for them to be close to the president's administration in order to avoid falsifications during the elections, they will vote for the budget and for anything the government proposes, but if they decide to count on protest votes they will stand against any government proposal," he said.
As for the Communists, both Makarkin and Pribylovsky forecast they will play a confrontational role by opposing the budget and any bill the government proposes.
For the time being, Duma deputies have two months of vacation. But most of them are not planning to rest. "Legislators who plan to continue working in 2004 are not even thinking about vacation," Volodin said. "They have to go to their regions and finally do what they had promised their voters to do but could not accomplish in 2002 and 2003."