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Russia Report: May 23, 2003

23 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 20
By Laura Belin

President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the parliament on 16 May trod familiar ground in many areas, such as his call for military reform and faster economic growth. However, he dropped a political bombshell at the end of his speech: "Taking into account the results of the coming [State Duma] elections, it is possible to form a professional, effective government that relies on a parliamentary majority."

The president did not advocate constitutional changes that would be necessary to create a parliamentary system of government in Russia. Nor did he issue any binding pledge that would weaken the presidential prerogative to appoint cabinet ministers. Nevertheless, for the first time in post-Soviet Russia, a president endorsed in such a forum the idea of appointing a government that would enjoy the support of most parliamentarians. In so doing, Putin significantly raised the stakes ahead of this year's Duma campaign.

In 1995 and 1999, the Duma elections both determined the composition of the lower chamber of parliament and served as unofficial "presidential primaries." The results revealed the strengths and weaknesses of various political parties and electoral blocs, and by extension the presidential prospects of their leaders. For instance, Unity's unexpectedly strong second-place showing in the 1999 party-list vote helped make Putin the overwhelming front-runner in the 2000 presidential election held just weeks later. By the same token, former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov looked like a strong presidential candidate for most of 1999 -- but that was before the Fatherland-All Russia alliance, which he co-led, finished a distant third in the Duma elections.

Since Putin is not likely to face serious opposition in next year's presidential race, this December's Duma elections will not be the make-or-break event that the 1999 elections were for members of Boris Yeltsin's "family" of advisers. However, now that Putin has endorsed the principle of a government supported by the parliament, a poor showing by pro-presidential parties in December would be embarrassing for his administration. Whether the popular president will endorse any specific party remains unclear, but behind the scenes the Kremlin will make full use of its so-called administrative resources to support the favored parties and undermine its political opponents.

The pro-presidential groups in the current Duma have much to gain if the Kremlin has more riding on the election result. Not surprisingly, several members of those factions lauded Putin's comments about the composition of the future government. However, the reactions of other political leaders were in some ways counterintuitive.

Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii cautiously welcomed the idea of appointing a government reflecting the parliamentary majority, even as he pointed out that Putin's comments were vague. Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov said the proposal "will allow political parties to get involved in tackling the everyday problems of Russian society." His SPS colleague and Duma Deputy Speaker Irina Khakamada argued that Putin should go further. Appearing on NTV on 16 May, she advocated a transition to a parliamentary republic, in which the president would take on the functions of prime minister and appoint a cabinet based on a parliamentary majority.

Yet recent opinion polls suggest that Yabloko and the SPS might have trouble clearing the 5 percent threshold required to win any of the 225 Duma seats distributed according to proportional representation. Even if both parties clear that hurdle, they certainly will not be the "main political forces" in the next Duma.

In contrast, members of the Communist Party (KPRF) were not impressed by Putin's proposal. KPRF leader Gennadii Zyuganov said Russia should either become a presidential republic "where the president heads the government and is responsible for everything" or establish a "government of a State Duma majority which, along with the State Duma, would be accountable for what happens in the country," Interfax reported on 16 May. KPRF deputy head Ivan Melnikov blasted Putin, saying he "was attempting to take the president out of the line of fire and to shift responsibility to the executive branch" -- that is, to the government. Appearing on NTV on 16 May, Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev, a member of the Communist faction, asked rhetorically, "If our president really wants to put the government under the control of the people, what is stopping him today?"

The Communists' stance is ironic. The KPRF leads all the pro-presidential parties in recent opinion polls. Moreover, during the 1990s the KPRF repeatedly called on Yeltsin to appoint a government representing a parliamentary majority. Yet the Communist position is logical, since the famously risk-averse Putin left himself an out in his address. "It is possible to unite our efforts if the main political forces possess the civic responsibility [required] for collegial work," Putin said. In other words, if parties not to his liking become the "main political forces" in the next Duma, the president can cite their lack of "civic responsibility" as an excuse for backtracking on plans to appoint a government supported by the parliamentary majority.

Putin's hedge underscores that he did not endorse a formal parliamentary system, which would diminish his power to hire and fire cabinet ministers at any time. Still, by embracing the principle of a government backed by parliament, Putin increased the pressure on centrist parties to secure a majority in the next Duma. The coming election campaign just became more interesting.

Laura Belin has written extensively on Russian politics and elections since 1995.

Representatives of several leftist and nationalist political parties attended a Moscow conference on 19 May aimed at forging a broad leftist coalition to contest December's State Duma elections, "Kommersant-Daily" reported the next day. Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev's Popular Initiative Center organized the conference, which included members of the KPRF, the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), the Eurasian Party, the Party of Labor, and the Russian Communist Workers Party. Glazev heads the KRO and belongs to the Communist State Duma faction. Although he is not a KPRF member, he is expected to be near the top of the KPRF's party list in this year's Duma elections.

Gennadii Semigin, chairman of the executive political committee of the Popular-Patriotic Union of Russia (NPSR), told "Kommersant-Daily" that he was not invited to the 19 May conference. The NPSR is a leftist umbrella movement formed by the KPRF shortly after the 1996 presidential election, and Glazev is one of its co-chairmen. However, Semigin has recently clashed with the KPRF leadership, according to "Kommersant-Daily."

Glazev's efforts to expand the left's electoral base have fueled speculation in the Russian press that he plans to run for president in 2004. He finished a strong third in the first round of the Krasnoyarsk Krai gubernatorial election last year, picking up 22 percent of the vote. Many Communists believe that the party needs to be part of a larger coalition to attract voters who, despite leftist leanings, would refuse to vote for a Communist Party member. "Moskovskii komsomolets" speculated on 21 May that the KPRF might nominate Glazev instead of party leader Zyuganov for president, since Zyuganov has already made two unsuccessful presidential bids.

Alternatively, Glazev might run for president as a Communist "reserve" candidate, much as Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev did in 1996. During his campaign speeches and free airtime on television and radio, Tuleev avoided explicitly Communist rhetoric, calling on voters to support the "popular-patriotic bloc." Then, toward the end of the presidential campaign, he dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Zyuganov. (Laura Belin)

The National-Patriotic Forces/Great Power Union, an electoral bloc comprising 11 parties, including the National-Patriotic Forces of Russia and the Military-Great Power Union of Russia, held its first congress on 20 May in Moscow, Interfax reported. Shmidt Dzoblaev, secretary-general of the National-Patriotic Forces of Russia, told the news agency that the new bloc's constituent parties have banded together to contest December's parliamentary elections "under the slogans of Russian statehood, which rests on the powerful foundation of its history, culture, [and] spiritual values." Military-Great Power Union of Russia leader and retired General Leonid Ivashov told Interfax that the new coalition is made up of groups such as the Cossacks that share the social and economic views of the Communists, but do not want to make common cause with the KPRF. Dzoblaev said the new bloc will submit registration documents with the Central Election Commission (TsIK) as soon as the official start of the parliamentary election campaign is announced. (Jonas Bernstein)

The Justice Ministry has revoked the registration of the National Power Party of Russia (NDPR), Ekho Moskvy reported on 20 May. Deputy Justice Minister Yevgenii Sidorenko told the radio station that the party had not registered affiliates in the required number of regions within the legally stipulated time frame. The party still has the time and the right to restart the registration process, Sidorenko said. NDPR leader Boris Mironov denied that the party had failed to meet the legal requirements for registration and said the revocation was politically motivated. The party will challenge the Justice Ministry's action in court, Mironov said, adding that the appeal would probably be rejected. In January, the Justice Ministry issued a warning to the NDPR after Mironov suggested in an interview that certain ethnic groups, including Jews, should be stripped of their voting rights. That same month, party co-Chairman Stanislav Terekhov sued the World Congress of Russian Jewry (VKRE) for defamation after it issued an appeal to President Putin characterizing the NDPR as anti-Semitic, "fascist," and "extremist" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 27 January 2003). JB

Russia's leading political parties have already selected image makers, or public-relations agencies, to handle this fall's campaign for the State Duma, NTV reported on 10 May. Gleb Pavlovskii's Foundation for Effective Politics will handle the Unified Russia campaign. A special Information-Technological Center headed by Ilya Ponomarev will handle the Communist Party's campaign. The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) will hire two public-relations firms: Video International PR and Vladimir Ruga's PR Center. Yabloko will use Leonid Levin's Secret Adviser agency, which it has used in the past, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has hired Yelena Sorokina's agency Feedback. According to recent opinion polls, the Communist Party and Unified Russia are each supported by more than 20 percent of the population, with the SPS, Yabloko, and the LDPR all hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to gain Duma seats allocated by proportional representation. LB

The Duma on 21 May passed in its first reading by a vote of 354 to 18 a bill that would grant amnesty to many participants in the fighting in Chechnya, Russian media reported. The bill is strongly supported by President Putin. Under the draft, the amnesty will cover any members of Chechen armed formations active on the territory of the former Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic since 1 August 1993 who lay down their arms by 1 August. The amnesty also covers members of the Russian armed forces who might have committed crimes in Chechnya during this period. Presidential representative to the Duma Aleksandr Kotenkov said on 21 May that the amnesty "does not extend to terrorists or to those who took hostages, engaged in banditry or arms theft, or desecrated corpses," reported. Kotenkov estimated that about 1,000 people, 300 of whom are Russian soldiers, would qualify for the amnesty. Presidential human rights commission head Ella Pamfilova, however, told Interfax on 21 May that as many as 3,000 people might qualify for the amnesty. Duma Legislation Committee Chairman Pavel Krasheninnikov (SPS) said on 21 May that Colonel Yurii Budanov, who is on trial on charges of murdering a Chechen woman, would not benefit from the measure. (Victor Yasmann/Laura Belin)

During a closed-door session on 14 May, State Duma deputies voted by 294 to 194 to ratify the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which was signed by U.S. President George W. Bush and President Putin last May and approved by the U.S. Senate in March, Russian media reported. Under the treaty, the two countries will reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads by the end of 2012. The countries retain the right to maintain the existing structure of their nuclear forces. Speaking with journalists after the vote, Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy) said the treaty paves the way for an additional agreement with the United States, and noted that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty is more important for Russia that it is for the United States, reported. He said that even if Russia had failed to ratify the treaty, it would nonetheless have a nuclear force of about 2,000 warheads by 2012, while the United States would likely have a much larger arsenal. TV-Tsentr commented on 14 May that Russia cannot afford simultaneously to maintain nuclear parity with the United States, build a volunteer military, and continue feeding its 17 oligarch-billionaires. Ratification of the treaty was timed to coincide with a visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. VY

The Duma on 21 May ratified the Russian-Lithuanian State Border Agreement and the agreement with Lithuania on delimiting an exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf in the Baltic Sea, Russian agencies reported. The treaties were signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas in October 1997. Their consideration generated a lively debate of more than two hours in the Duma, reported. An explanatory notice submitted to the Duma by the government said the agreements do not make any territorial concessions to Lithuania -- that is, they do not transfer any Russian territory without receiving "adequate compensation." However, the left opposition and the LDPR opposed ratifying the treaties, in part because of controversy over regulations for transit to Kaliningrad Oblast through Lithuania, and in part because Russia would allegedly lose territory following ratification. In a speech to the Duma, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii called for filing criminal charges against all deputies who voted to ratify the border treaty, according to LB

The Duma on 14 May ratified an agreement signed in Yerevan in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2002) under which Armenia cedes to Russia three research institutes and two key enterprises, including the country's largest thermal-power plant, in payment of its $100 million debt, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The Armenian parliament voted by a narrow margin in December to endorse the agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2002). (Liz Fuller)

The Duma on 14 May approved in their second reading amendments to the Tax Code related to production-sharing agreements (PSAs) for extracting natural resources, reported. Reaching consensus on the amendments was a lengthy process. They were approved in their first reading last June. In the end, 384 of the 450 deputies voted for the amendments, under which PSAs would be allowed only for natural-resource deposits that no one is planning to exploit under ordinary tax rules. Auctions for the right to develop deposits would be held, and only if those auctions are declared invalid due to a lack of bids would PSAs be permitted. argued that the amendments would end the use of PSAs "as a means of evading the national tax regime and receiving excess profits." LB

The Tax Code amendments would affect not only future PSAs, but also some contracts that have already been signed, reported on 14 May. The legislature has adopted 17 laws in recent years listing deposits that can be developed using PSAs. Most of those laws would lose force if the changes to the Tax Code are adopted. Companies that have contracts for those deposits would have two options: either to go ahead with the project under ordinary tax rules or to give up their licenses, wait until an auction for the use of the deposit is declared invalid, and try to conclude new PSAs. However, the amendments approved on 14 May contain loopholes. The requirement that auctions be held for the right to develop deposits under ordinary tax rules will not apply to deposits on continental shelves, at the bottom of the Caspian Sea, or in special economic zones, or those that will be exploited under international treaties. noted that the loophole will allow LUKoil to retain PSAs for two offshore Caspian oil fields and will allow Rosneft, ChevronTexaco, and ExxonMobil to retain similar agreements to develop deposits beneath the Sakhalin shelf. LB

Duma deputies on 14 May expressed serious concern about the situation of ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan since an agreement on dual citizenship between Turkmenistan and Russia was revoked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2003), Interfax reported. Deputy Viktor Alksnis (Russian Regions) reportedly called for Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to be summoned to the Duma to explain who decided to revoke the dual-citizenship agreement. That proposal was rejected, but Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rogozin (People's Deputy) said his committee and the CIS Affairs Committee will consider summoning Foreign Ministry representatives to speak about the situation of Russians in Turkmenistan. Holders of dual citizenship have until 22 June to decide which citizenship to retain. "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 13 May predicted that 100,000-200,000 emigrants from Turkmenistan might make their way to Russia. There are reported to be 100,000 holders of Turkmen-Russian dual citizenship. (Bess Brown)

The Duma is scheduled to adjourn for the summer on 24 June, but Speaker Gennadii Seleznev announced on 20 May that the deputies might have to extend the session, "Vremya novostei" reported on 21 May. He said the Duma Council has asked the committees on the budget, legislation, and local self-government to consult with the government to determine whether it will be necessary to extend the session. Seleznev also said the government has delayed submitting some important bills, which has pushed back their consideration. By way of example, "Vremya novostei" cited the local self-government reforms, which the Duma was supposed to consider in May. Because the government took longer than expected to work out amendments to the Tax Code linked to those reforms, the Duma was forced to delay consideration of the local self-government reform until June. Other important bills have been approved in the first reading only. LB

The Duma on 21 May rejected a motion to punish Duma Deputy Vasilii Shandybin (Communist) for shouting, "There will be only thieves, bandits, and bribe-takers in the next Duma" after President Putin's 16 May address to parliament, RIA-Novosti reported. Duma Deputy Aleksandr Fedulov (independent) on 21 May raised the matter of what he called Shandybin's "unworthy" behavior, and Duma Ethics Committee Chairwoman Galina Strelchenko (Unity) suggested taking away Shandybin's right to speak in the chamber for the remainder of the Duma's spring session. However, the majority apparently agreed with Duma Speaker Seleznev, who said that voting for such a measure would do the president more harm than good. Shandybin has long been one of the more outspoken members of the Communist Duma faction. He and Fedulov got into a fistfight in the Duma earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 13 February 2003). LB

The Federation Council on 14 May approved the new Customs Code and a law on the system of state service, Russian media reported. Among other things, the new Customs Code forbids customs officials from impounding goods for undefined periods, from seizing documents from importers and exporters, or from dictating at which customs posts shipments must be processed. The law on the system of state service establishes three types of government service: civil, military, and law enforcement. It also introduces different categories of responsibilities such as "directors," "advisers," "specialists," and "providers," and defines the legal status of each category. (Laura Belin/Julie A. Corwin)

The Federation Council has submitted to the Duma an amendment to the law on the status of State Duma deputies and Federation Council members, which would forbid members of both chambers from voting on behalf of their colleagues, reported on 30 April. The amendment is the brainchild of Yurii Sharandin, the chairman of the Federation Council's Committee on Constitutional Legislation.

The Duma's rules of order permit proxy voting, but some deputies have charged that the practice is out of control. In September 2002, when the Duma hastily approved amendments to the federal constitutional law on referenda, four members of centrist Duma factions each voted on behalf of some 30 colleagues. (Communist Duma deputies have challenged those amendments in the Constitutional Court, and their court appeal cited the widespread proxy voting as one of the alleged procedural violations that should invalidate the amendments to the referendum law.) predicted that the Duma will reject the amendment proposed by the upper chamber, because the limits "would make it impossible to work." Some Duma deputies rarely, if ever, turn up in the parliament, and without proxy voting, the chamber would often fail to have a quorum present. According to, pro-government Duma factions have even changed the Duma's rules to allow proxy voting in committee meetings as well as plenary sessions. LB

Journalists will have more trouble acquiring information from Federation Council staffers under an order imposed by Petr Tkachenko, head of the upper chamber's apparatus, "Gazeta" reported on 7 May. The new rule requires staffers to seek clearance from the chamber's press service for contacts with journalists and to report the topics of discussion in advance. An unnamed source in the Federation Council's apparatus told "Gazeta" that the rule is a response to leaks concerning the council's work, which create "unnecessary flaps in society and harm the image of the Federation Council itself." "Gazeta" noted that the State Duma does not impose such limits on staffers. On the federal level, only the presidential administration restricts contact with the press to the same degree. Journalists often rely on Federation Council staffers for information because many deputies routinely skip the chamber's monthly sessions and are therefore unavailable for comment. LB


State Duma:

Name of law______________Date approved____________No. of reading

Amnesty for Chechen fighters____21 May________________1st

Tax Code amendments__________14 May________________2nd
(on production-sharing agreements)

Name of treaty____________________________________Date ratified

Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty___________________14 May

Assets-for-debt agreement with Armenia_________________14 May

Border treaty with Lithuania___________________________21 May

Federation Council:

Name of law_____________________________________Date approved

Customs Code______________________________________14 May

Law on State Service________________________________14 May

STILL IN: Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref returned to work on 19 May after recuperating from an unspecified illness. Gref fell ill on 21 March, spent time in a Moscow hospital, and returned to work on 11 April, only to go on extended sick leave again 10 days later. Some commentators speculated that Gref had had a nervous breakdown, while others suspected a "political" illness stemming from disagreements with Prime Minister Kasyanov. "Vremya novostei" reported on 20 May that "during Gref's leave of absence, relations between [his] ministry and the cabinet staff reached an all-time low," as Gref's subordinates accused the cabinet staff of undermining pension reforms and altering documents drafted by Gref's ministry. When Gref did not return to work as expected on 12 May, rumors of his imminent dismissal picked up steam. Several commentators predicted that President Putin's 16 May address to parliament would blame Gref for failing to produce better results regarding administrative reform and economic growth. Quashing those rumors, Gref attended the regular Monday meeting of top cabinet ministers with President Putin on 19 May. After that meeting, Putin met separately with Gref and charged him with finding "fresh ideas" to implement the tasks Putin laid out in his 16 May address to parliament. Among other things, Putin in that speech called for doubling Russia's gross domestic product by 2010, which would require a sharp increase in the economic-growth rate.

22 May: The current term of presidential ombudsman for human rights Oleg Mironov expires

25 May: Gubernatorial elections to be held in Belgorod Oblast

25-26 May: U.S. President Bush will visit St. Petersburg

25-27 May: Chinese President Hu Jintao will visit Russia

30 May: Russia-European Union summit will take place in St. Petersburg

31 May-1 June: Czech President Vaclav Klaus will visit St. Petersburg

June: President Putin scheduled to visit London, according to ITAR-TASS on 29 April

1 June: Deadline for Russian veterinary inspectors to complete inspections of U.S. chicken farms

1 June: Date by which Putin has instructed the government to complete consultations on a plan to convert Russia to a professional army

1-3 June: G-8 summit will take place in Evian, France

12 June: Liberal Russia faction that supports Boris Berezovskii will hold extraordinary congress in Moscow

15 June: Karachaevo-Cherkessia will hold presidential elections

16-22 June: A meeting of 25 Nobel Prize laureates on the topic of "Science and the Progress of Humanity" will be held in St. Petersburg

17-21 June: Seventh International Economic Forum will be held in St. Petersburg

27 June: Gazprom will hold annual shareholders meeting

July: Month by which a working group of European and Russian legislators wants to create a "road map" for implementation of the joint Russian-EU accord on Kaliningrad of 11 November 2002, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March

1 July: Date by which the new State Committee on Drug Trafficking will be created and new Federal Service for Economic and Tax Crimes will be formed, according to the committee's head Viktor Cherkesov on 8 April and ITAR-TASS on 10 April

1 July: United Arab Emirates national airline will begin regular flights from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport

14 July: Deadline set by President Putin for Russian regions to bring their laws into compliance with federal regulations

15 August: Date by which Duma should approve new map of single-mandate districts; if it fails to do so, the Central Election Commission will have the right to confirm the map.

September: Second Russian-U.S. Commercial Energy Summit will take place in Moscow

September: Gennadii Seleznev's Party for Russia's Revival will hold a congress in Moscow

1 September: Campaign officially begins for State Duma elections

1 September: Date by which government commission will have drafted 2004 budget

14 September: Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel's second term officially expires

23 September: The first European-Pacific Ocean Conference will take place in Vladivostok devoted to improving dialogue among intellectuals in European countries and the Pacific region, reported on 6 March

1 October: 33 percent salary hike for budget-funded workers to go into effect

6 October: British court to consider Russia's request to extradite Boris Berezovskii

October: Days of Bulgarian Culture will be held in Russia

October: President Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will meet in Yekaterinburg, Novyi region reported on 14 April

23-26 October: First anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

29 October: 85th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol.