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Russia: Politicians Prepare Positions For Budget Debate

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 7 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The recent war of words between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma, the lower house of parliament, increasingly looks like political skirmishing ahead of the budget debate.

Yeltsin last week twice hinted he may consider dissolving the State Duma, unless it approves the government budget proposal. The president has the right to dissolve the Duma if the lower house three times refuses to confirm the president's nominee for prime minister or twice votes no confidence in the government.

But yesterday the president and his cabinet ministers started a round of meetings with lawmakers in an attempt to reach a compromise.

After meeting Yeltsin in the Kremlin, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov said the president had told him that "he did not favor" the dissolution of the Duma.

Seleznyov said that his meeting with Yeltsin did not touch on the 1998 draft budget and "was necessitated by the tension between the president and the State Duma." Seleznyov added that "we had to talk face to face, rather then exchange statements on television."

In a nationwide radio address on Friday Yeltsin criticized the Duma for rejecting government-backed reductions in social benefits and for passing a land code precluding purchases and sale of farmland. He then warned State Duma deputies that "the people's patience, the president's patience is not limitless."

Observers in Moscow saw in Yeltsin's address also a move to influence legislators ahead of a debate which is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday on the government's performance this year and the proposed 1998 budget.

Some Russian politicians and observers say that a prolonged confrontation over the budget may eventually lead to the Duma's dissolution. But Itar-Tass news agency quoted Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev as saying that "only a madman" would risk dissolving the Duma. And an opinion poll carried out by the Public Opinion Fund and quoted by NTV television on Sunday shows that 52 percent of Russians oppose a possible dissolution of the Duma, while only 19 percent of the people questioned would support it.

Moreover, in dissolving Duma and calling an early election, Yeltsin could risk an even more radical opposition getting into parliament.

Yeltsin's warning on Friday came at the anniversary of the 1993 events, when he had sent troops and tanks to put down the Duma's rebellious predecessor, the Soviet-era Supreme Soviet, which he had sought to disband by decree.

Yeltsin reminded deputies that in 1993 the confrontation "led to bloodshed." There was fighting then between pro-Yeltsin troops and an angry mob supported by fighters who had distributed machine guns stored in the parliament building. Tanks shelled the building, which now accommodates the government. The hard-line rebels seized the Moscow mayor's office and attempted to storm the state television building only to be subdued by pro-Yeltsin troops. According to official figures, some 140 people died in street fighting. Unofficial estimates put the overall number of fatalities at nearly 300, including demonstrators, troops, journalists and by-standers.

This Saturday (Oct. 4) several thousand people staged peaceful demonstrations in Moscow to commemorate the events and mourn the dead. Addressing them, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said Duma deputies were not frightened by Yeltsin's recent threats of dissolution. Zyuganov also decried Yeltsin's radio address as a "confrontational ultimatum" seeking to "blackmail" the Duma before discussion of the draft 1998 budget.

Zyuganov was echoed yesterday by the leader of the pro-reform Yabloko faction, Grigory Yavlinsky, who told journalists that Yeltsin "traditionally does not like the legislators and is not able to work with them." Yavlinsky also cast doubt on the sincerity of the president's claims that he and his government want to work constructively with the Duma. Yavlinsky said that Yeltsin "needs an enemy."

Also yesterday, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, who serves as Finance Minister as well, was rebuked by the Duma's budget committee, when 26 of the committee's 32 members voted to urge the Duma to reject the budget in first reading this week. But only four committee members recommended a summary rejection of the budget, with the others recommending a joint reworking of the draft by a reconciliation commission composed of government and parliamentary officials. This is a move anticipated and supported by the government.

Interfax news agency quoted government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov as saying Seleznyov and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin discussed in their meeting yesterday the possible work of the reconciliation commission.

The government says the draft budget will promote economic growth and keep inflation down. Chubais told budget committee members that "1998 will be a year of reliable economic growth." He predicted that GDP would grow two percent, industrial output three percent, real income of the population three percent. Duma deputies were not impressed, they said the draft would only make life worse for ordinary Russians.

Chubais has said the government is ready to work with the Duma toward compromise. But he also has said that the overall economic structure proposed by the government must be preserved.

Interfax news agency reported that in preparation for the budget debate a number of other top government officials are conducting today further consultations with all the political factions represented in the Duma.