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Russia: Duma Ratifies Belarus Union Treaty

Moscow, 6 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's State Duma today failed to initiate an expected no-confidence vote in the Government, and instead overwhelmingly ratified a controversial Union Treaty and Charter between Russia and Belarus. The Union Treaty was signed last month in Moscow by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

However, rhetoric further escalated today on a possible dissolution of the Communist-and-nationalist-dominated lower house of the Russian parliament, as deputies decided to include in the session's agenda the text of an official statement on that issue.

The Duma ratified the Union deal with 363 votes in favor, two against and 19 abstentions. Despite calling for increased economic, political and military integration, the agreement signed by Yeltsin and Lukashenka March 23 is a watered down version of a previous draft, and falls short of creating a single state.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Valery Serov, said before today's vote that Russia and Belarus had decided "to move gradually towards each other." He added that a popular referendum on unification of the two countries could take place "in two-to-four years."

The majority of Duma deputies says the Union treaty will help restore Russia's international influence, particularly in view of NATO's eastward expansion, and might attract other former Soviet republics. Legislators share this view with top officials in the Kremlin and in government. However, Communist and nationalist Duma members have argued that the treaty should have called for more rapid integration.

Russian politicians, concerned with Lukashenka's authoritarian rule, Belarus' backward economy and the lack of pro-market reforms, have seen the agreement as a possible burden for Russia. No other former Soviet republic has expressed the wish to re-unify with Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Duma deputy Sergei Ivanenko, member of the pro-reform "Yabloko" faction, said that integration "built on the basis of an illegitimate parliament cannot satisfy our people." Russian reformists agree with Lukashenka's critics in Belarus and abroad that the country's new parliament is illegitimate. Lukashenka, last year, disbanded a popularly-elected parliament, replacing it with an assembly of his supporters.

Contrast between president and parliament is not the exclusive province of Belarus. The Duma has been long locked in a tense standoff with Yeltsin and the Government, and many have predicted this week that Yeltsin may soon dissolve the Duma and call new elections. Yeltsin, this week, hit out at the Duma for blocking the adoption of a new tax code recently proposed by the Government. Both Yeltsin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais urged lawmakers to pass a new tax code on first reading, before the Duma's Summer recess, in three weeks.

Russia's current tax code, adopted in 1992, has mushroomed into more than 200 Federal, regional and local taxes that experts say they are so complicated and costly to administer that they have become actually unprofitable for the Government. The proposed code, a 400-page package of reforms, would reduce to 30 the number of taxes. Government officials have said its adoption would ease the tax burden and introduce a number of measures favorable to business. Many managers, especially in the medium and small sectors, have said their profits turn into losses because of the burdensome taxes.

Chubais, who is also Finance Minister said this week that adoption of the new tax code is vital, since next year's budget is to be based on it. He warned deputies that failure to adopt it "would destroy the budget plan for 1998 and postpone real economic growth for another 18 months at least." The Government has also urged the Duma to adopt a government bill on a proposed budget cut of 21 percent in federal spending and bills on social-welfare reform.

Yeltsin this week issued the Government guidelines for the 1998 budget, and ruled out any repetition of this year's Government revision of the spending plan. The Government's proposed reduction would mean a saving of about $19 billion. The Government prepared the spending reductions in April, due to a chronic shortfall in tax collection. The State Duma last month failed to debate the spending reductions, and requested the Government to provide additional data. Chubais is expected to address the house on the issue next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Communist legislators and their nationalist allies showed no signs of giving in to the Kremlin's demand. In a further escalation of the standoff yesterday, legislators slammed the government's privatization record and told Yeltsin not to interfere in Duma voting procedures. The Duma passed a draft, non-binding resolution saying that the Government's former privatization program, for which Chubais in particular is widely praised, had been "unsatisfactory," and in many cases had broken the law. The draft resolution, that is expected to be adopted next week, also calls for the reversal of some privatization auctions.

Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov yesterday called on Chubais and Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin not to "engage in blackmail." Both Chubais and Rybkin had said they would not rule out that the Duma could be dissolved if deputies would block the government-proposed economic legislation. Communist legislators told our correspondent thee view the Government officials' words as an empty threat and a provocation.

Most deputies and many observers said early elections would not produce a more pro-Government Duma. Seleznyov and others cited the recent parliamentary elections in France to note that "Yeltsin -- as French President Jacques Chirac -- risks finding out that parliamentary elections are a double-edged sword," giving voters the chance to express their anger with unpredictable results. According to Seleznyov, "the authorities are looking for someone to blame for their own mistakes. But they are analyzing Chirac's experience and clearly don't want to repeat the mistake."

Observers have said that, given Russia's current economic conditions and the government's consistent failure to deliver on the payment of promised delayed wages and pensions, early parliamentary elections would likely improve the standing of the opposition in the State Duma.

Under Russia's Constitution, a president can dissolve the Duma if deputies vote no confidence in the government twice within three months. But if a prime minister initiates the confidence motion, only one no-confidence vote is required to give a president legal grounds for disbanding the Duma.

In a statement made public yesterday, the Communist party, which has the largest faction in the Duma, said it was ready to initiate a confidence vote in the Government. However, after a meeting of Communist leaders in the evening, deputies said a no-confidence vote was unlikely. Today, Communist deputies decided to initiate an official Duma statement that would address what they called Government's provocations aimed at "discrediting the positive legislative activity" of the Duma. The draft statement blasts Government officials "for the attempt to blame the Duma for the complete failure of the Government's budget policy." The statement is expected to find large support in the Duma, but falls well short of a no-confidence vote.

Communist officials today declined to comment on the issue, but rhetoric is likely to continue in the next days, at least until Chubais' appearance in the Duma next week. Influential communist legislator Viktor Ilyukhin said a decision on a no-confidence vote is likely to be made after he addresses the Duma.