Accessibility links

Russia Report: January 26, 2001

26 January 2001, Volume 1, Number 2
PUTIN LEAVES PROSECUTORS' POWERS UNTOUCHED. One week after hinting in a speech that reforms of the prosecutorial system are needed, Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration backed away from proposed legislation that would have limited prosecutors' power (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 22 January 2001). After forwarding draft amendments to the Criminal Code to the State Duma on 5 January, the Kremlin withdrew them 14 days later. The official reason given, according to the deputy head of the presidential administration, Dmitrii Kozak, was that a number of financial, technical, and organizational issues still need to be resolved. The proposed amendments would have required prosecutors to first seek court approval before issuing their own orders for arrests and searches. The amendments would have brought the current Criminal Code, which was adopted in 1960, in conformity with the Russian Constitution. President Putin has made bringing regions' laws into conformity with the constitution a priority.

Moscow-based newspapers reported that the Kremlin came under pressure from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. State Duma deputies Viktor Pokhmelkin and Sergei Yushenkov, both from the Union of Rightist Forces, told Moscow-based newspapers that Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, and Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev personally convinced the president not to change the existing method of detaining and arresting suspects. According to "Moskovskii Komsomolets" on 23 January, Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev also objected to the proposed changes, arguing that they would put courts under an additional strain and that more judges and better finances should be put in place first. Implementation of the proposed amendments would require an estimated 3,000 additional judges and 6,900 extra court system workers, according to Interfax.

One supporter of the changes, Vladimir Mironov, himself a former judge in a Moscow city court, told "The Moscow Times" that the he does not believe that judges are too busy to deal with arrests and searches. "Actually, we have 600 judges who don't work at all," he said. And, "Segodnya," which is owned by Vladimir Gusinskii's Media-MOST group, suggested that it is possible that a number of the necessary workers could be transferred from the corps working under the Prosecutor-General. JAC

SPS PREPARES FOR THE FUTURE. With the new law on political parties dimming their future prospects (see "End Note" below), members of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) gathered in Moscow on 21 January to plan their group's next moves. At the meeting, members agreed to hold a founding congress on 26 May to transform the SPS from a loose association into a political party. Currently, SPS is composed of 9 different parties, movements, and organizations, including Boris Nemtsov's Young Russia, Sergei Kirienko's New Force, and Yegor Gaidar's Democratic Choice of Russia (DVR). In theory, all of the components of the SPS are now supposed to dissolve and cease individual activities. However, unidentified sources in SPS told "Segodnya" that New Force head Sergei Kirienko, who is currently presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District, does not want to dissolve his group and join the reorganized SPS. It noted that Kirienko did not attend the 21 January meeting and sent only two representatives of his organization.

The issue of leadership is also likely proving a thorny one. Delegates to the 26 May congress will select a leader of the new party. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 23 January, there is significant opposition to Nemtsov, the current leader of SPS's faction in the Duma, becoming the leader of the new party, particularly from members of the DVR. Nemtsov told reporters on 21 January that the SPS party's new leader will not necessarily have to head the party list of candidates in the next State Duma elections or be the party's nominee in the next presidential elections. Nemtsov also admitted that the process of transforming into a party is "painful and not completely smooth."

Meanwhile, SPS's potential merger with Yabloko appears to be on hold at least until the SPS becomes a party. In an interview last month, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii said that most members of his party consider a union with SPS as a coalition of two strong parties and do not support the dissolution of either Yabloko or SPS. At the same time, newspapers as diverse as "Tribuna" and "Novye Izvestiya" have been arguing that the SPS has not yet "matured" enough as a political organization in comparison with Yabloko. "Novye Izvestiya" asserts on 12 January that Yabloko "is one of the oldest participants in the [post-Soviet] Russian political process, while SPS is less than a year old." It also notes Yabloko has had better success in regional elections than the SPS, which reportedly even had difficulty picking a winner in its stronghold, Nizhnii Novgorod.

Another key difference between the two organizations may be its attitude toward Putin. Two of SPS's leaders, Kirienko and Anatolii Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems, hold posts from which they could be dismissed by the government, while Yabloko leader Yavlinskii said in a recent interview that his group is considering becoming an opposition party again. On the other hand, SPS -- or parts of it -- may be moving closer to Yabloko's position. At a meeting on 21 January, a declaration of SPS's relations to the executive branch was adopted. That document declares that "the right forces will be loyal to Putin depending on his deeds, and the government will be supported in measures which correspond with its course toward democracy," according to "Izvestiya" on 22 January. The declaration continued that SPS "does not preclude a possibility of siding with the opposition if the president takes the road of autocracy." JAC

DUMA DEPUTIES TAKE CARE OF YELTSIN... Duma deputies had a productive week, passing four bills in their third and final readings. The Kremlin suffered no setbacks in terms of its legislative agenda, while the Communist and other left groups were foiled in their efforts to block two bills. Duma deputies voted on 25 January to pass a bill in its third reading that would extend immunity from criminal prosecution as well as other benefits to former Russian presidents. The vote was 280 in favor with 130 opposed and one abstention, according to ITAR-TASS. A vote the previous day on the bill's second reading was 275 in favor, 139 opposed, and zero abstentions. Former Russian presidents, of which former President Boris Yeltsin is the only example, will receive free medical care, transportation, bodyguards, a dacha, and a pension. An amendment to extend these benefits to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev failed. The bill was altered in its second reading so that presidents' immunity from criminal prosecution will not be unlimited, "Vremya Novostei" reported on 25 January. Under the current version of the law, immunity can only be revoked if a major crime is committed. The bill was supported by Unity, People's Deputy, and the majority of Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), SPS, Yabloko, Russian Regions, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). The Communist faction and Agro-Industrial group opposed the bill in both readings. JAC

...REWARD LOYAL JUDGES... Duma deputies also voted on 25 January to approve in its third reading amendments to the law on the Constitutional Court, which were originally designed to increase the terms for judges on that court from 12 to 15 years and raise the retirement age to 70. The vote was 302 in favor with 108 opposed, according to Interfax. Most analysts believe the bill was originally proposed by the Kremlin so that Constitutional Court Chairman Marat Baglai and Deputy Chairperson Tamara Morshchakova could be retained (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2000). Morshchakova, for example, will turn 65 in March. "Kommersant-Daily" noted on 25 January that "in recent years the court has never once given the Kremlin any sign that its loyalty should be doubted." However, during the second reading, Communist deputy Aleksandr Salii introduced changes so that those judges appointed after 1994 will serve 15-year terms without a mandatory retirement age, while those appointed before 1994 will have to retire at 65, according to the daily. JAC

...ALLOW REGIONAL LEADERS TO EXTEND THEIR REIGNS... A bill allowing some regional leaders to seek a third, and even fourth, term was passed in its third reading on 25 January after a second reading on 24 January. The vote was 235 in favor and 170 opposed during the third reading, and during the second reading the vote was 243 in favor with 158 against and 2 abstentions. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 25 January, the bill was altered during its second reading by an amendment proffered by Fatherland-All Russia member Georgii Boos, and as a result as many as 69 regional leaders may now seek a third term. Seventeen of them may reportedly even seek a fourth term. The bill is likely to become law since the Kremlin's representative to the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, voiced no objections to the changes, and Federation Council members will only be too happy to extend their terms in office. Supporting the legislation was Unity, OVR, LDPR, People's Deputy, and Russian Region groups, while Yabloko and the Communist factions were opposed. JAC

...GIVE PRELIMINARY APPROVAL TO A NEW LAND LEGISLATION... Deputies on 25 January voted to approve in its first reading chapter 17 of the Civil Code that allows the private ownership of non-agricultural land. The bill narrowly won acceptance with 229 votes in favor -- just three more than the minimum required -- with 168 opposed and 4 abstentions. Supporting the bill was Unity, People's Deputy, SPS, and Yabloko. During the pre-vote debate, members of the Communist faction and Agro-Industrial group expressed their strong disapproval. Communist deputy Yurii Nikiforov declared that "those who vote for this bill hate farmers," while Agro-Industrial group head Nikolai Kharitonov argued that it is "premature" to even allow the sale of urban land. Presidential envoy to the Duma Kotenkov appealed to deputies to support the bill, noting that some version of the Land Code has been floating around for the last six years and if this situation continues, "a black market in land will continue." JAC

...AND INCREASE RANKS OF FEDERAL WORKERS. On 24 January, deputies accepted in its third reading a bill that will increase their number of assistants from 30 to 50. In addition, Duma deputies' regional personnel will have their status raised to that of their Moscow colleagues, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 January. According to the daily, the regional staffers will now receive the advantages and privileges accorded to federal workers. According to ITAR-TASS, currently Duma deputies have 12,229 staff members. JAC

Law_____________________date passed_______ reading On presidential immunity______24 January________2nd

__________________________25 January________3rd

On status of Duma deputies_____24 January________3rd
and members of the Federation Council________________

On the Constitutional Court_____24 January_________2nd

___________________________25 January_________3rd

On principles for organizing______24 January________2nd
legislative and executive organs in the regions__________

____________________________25 January________3rd

Civil Code, chapter 17__________25 January_________1st

OUT 'TEMPORARILY': Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov appointed Igor Selivanov on 25 January as a temporary replacement for Pavel Borodin, secretary of state for the Union of Russia and Belarus. According to Interfax, Selivanov is a former deputy of Borodin at the Kremlin's property directorate, which Borodin once headed. More recently, he served as a financial official in the Union's government, according to "Kommersant-Daily." Borodin recently wound up in a New York jail on his way to U.S. President George W. Bush's inauguration.

POLITICAL CALENDAR February: A new law on privatization will be submitted to the Duma, according to "Kommersant-Vlast" on 23 January.

7 February: State Duma will discuss in its first reading the draft law on political parties (see "End Note" below), according to Deputy (Russian Regions) Vladimir Lysenko.

23 February: Duma will hold a hearing on the restructuring of Unified Energy Systems, according to Duma Energy Committee head (Unity) Vladimir Katrenko.

Beginning of March: The law on the Central Bank will have its second reading, according to Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Budget and Taxes (Yabloko) Mikhail Zadornov.

15 April: Kremlin working group on judicial reform headed by deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitrii Kozak will submit proposals for reform in the form of draft regulations.

26 May: Union of Rightist Forces will hold its founding congress.


By Laura Belin

The Kremlin has submitted a draft law on political parties to the State Duma for consideration this spring. Although the bill may be amended somewhat, it is likely to become law. As currently drafted, it would benefit the forces that have the largest delegations in the State Duma: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the pro-government Unity party. Four other versions have also been proposed, but "Izvestiya" reported on 24 January that all of them share most features of the Kremlin's draft.

The law has prompted much criticism from worried members of smaller political groups, with good reason, although the concerns most commonly raised to date may not be the most serious threats to small parties' existence.

The two biggest lightning rods for criticism have been the draft law's membership requirements for political parties (see "End Note," RFE/RL Newsline, 18 January 2001) and the introduction of state funding for parties that win at least 3 percent of the vote in Duma or presidential elections.

Those are not trivial matters, but they may not have dire implications. All of the groups represented in the current Duma, plus several others that did not clear the 5-percent barrier in the 1999 parliamentary election, could likely meet the membership requirements (10,000 members, with branches of at least 100 members in at least 45 Russian regions). True, the law would make it harder to establish new parties, but it is difficult to build an influential party from scratch in any case.

The membership requirements would likely create insurmountable barriers only for regionally-based political parties. Several Russian governors have tried to form their own parties in the past, with little success (Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel's Transformation of the Fatherland is just one example). A charismatic regional leader would have an even tougher time under the new law. A would-be party that claimed to stand for one area of the Russian Federation (Siberia or the Urals, for example) would find it nearly impossible to establish branches in the required number of regions.

The prospect of state funding for parties has naturally raised fears that "he who pays the piper calls the tune," and the Union of Right Forces is pushing a version that would not include any state funding. However, the law in its current form does not provide for huge financial support from the state. Budget funds would be transferred annually to political parties that gained at least 3 percent nationwide in the previous Duma election, and a one-off payment would go to parties whose presidential candidate gained at least 3 percent of the vote. Parties would receive 0.2 percent of the monthly minimum wage for each vote their presidential candidate or party list gained. The magazine "Kommersant-Vlast" (16 January) calculated that if such rules had been in effect following the 1999 parliamentary election, the Communist Party (which led all other groups in party-list votes) would have received the ruble equivalent of around $95,000. Unity would have received about $90,000. That would not even cover the cost of running a campaign, let alone a party's financial needs for a year.

The draft law does not make the state the sole source of funds for political parties. The proposed limits on financial contributions are 100,000 times the minimum monthly wage (in current terms, the ruble equivalent of about $460,000) for a Russian legal entity and 10,000 times the minimum wage for a Russian individual. Just a few contributions from wealthy financial backers or corporations could nullify any financial advantage the biggest parties would gain through state funding.

Other proposed restrictions might be more damaging to prospective political parties. Article 9 would prohibit the formation of parties based on gender, religion, ethnicity, race, or those belonging to a particular professional or social group. This would seem to bar the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs as well as several groups that have nominated party lists in previous Duma elections: the Agrarian Party of Russia, Women of Russia, and the Pensioners' Party. "Kommersant-Vlast" predicted, however, that this provision would be removed during the amendment process.

Another passage in the same article may also raise alarm bells, authorizing unspecified "temporary" limits on the activities of political parties in the event of a state of emergency, either nationwide or in one part of Russia.

But the greatest dangers to smaller political parties arguably lie in the provisions describing the valid reasons for "liquidating" a party's registration (and consequently its right to nominate candidates for future elections). The grounds for such action, listed in Articles 41 and 42, include vague infractions, such as "taking decisions that violate the rights and freedoms of citizens." Registration can also be revoked because of failure to comply with just one of many requirements, including new rules on financial disclosure and strict limits on entrepreneurial activities parties can engage in. (Such rules, incidentally, would be bad news for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has long raised money through businesses that would be off-limits for parties under the draft law.)

The decision to liquidate the registration of a party or one of its regional branches can be appealed in court, but Russian courts are not known for impartiality (especially at regional level). A series of court rulings annulling regional branches could easily deprive a party of enough branches to satisfy the law's membership requirements.

New "participation" requirements might be the most difficult for small parties to meet. In order to maintain their legal status, political parties would be required to nominate a candidate in every presidential election, and nominate a party list and candidates in at least 12 of the 225 single-member districts in every Duma election. During a five-year period, parties would have to nominate candidates for governor or president in at least nine regional elections; nominate candidates to at least 18 regional legislatures; and nominate candidates to at least 45 organs of local government.

It is not just that recruiting and running candidates in so many elections would require vast human and financial resources. It is that electoral commissions are gatekeepers to the ballot. Article 27 of the draft law states that parties are considered to have "participated" in elections if their candidates have been "registered;" it appears to require that candidates be on the ballot when voting takes place.

Here is where opposition parties would be extremely vulnerable. Electoral commissions at the federal and regional level have sometimes made decisions that appeared to be based on political rather than strictly legal considerations. Opposition candidates have been denied access to the ballot on questionable grounds in many regions.

It is easy to imagine a situation where a party disliked by the Kremlin nominates candidates for governor in dozens of regions, only to have most of them struck off the ballot by electoral commissions. Similarly, the Central Electoral Commission could invoke a technicality to deny a party access to the party-list ballot for the next Duma election. Under the proposed terms of the law, missing just one Duma election, or failing to nominate gubernatorial candidates in at least nine regions during a five-year period, would be enough to revoke a party's registration.

It is not clear whether small parties could avoid such a fate by endorsing other parties' candidates for president, governor, or legislator in the required number of local and regional elections. Even if they could, that is hardly an attractive option for a party in search of a political niche from which to build future support.

Selective application of various laws has been a recurring motif of Vladimir Putin's presidency. If the law on political parties is adopted in its current form, it could be used selectively to winnow the political field by administrative means, rather than letting the voters decide which parties have a future.

Laura Belin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. She has written extensively on Russian elections since 1995.