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Russia: Duma To Discuss Kremlin Bill To Overhaul Political Parties

Russia's State Duma today began its first session of the new year. In the coming weeks, the lower house is expected to discuss a draft bill presented by President Vladimir Putin to overhaul the country's more than 270 political parties. Opponents say the bill could paralyze the development of political organizations in Russia by increasing state control.

Moscow, 17 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The State Duma's current session is expected to discuss several key reform bills. One of the most controversial of these, proposed by President Vladimir Putin, is a draft law overhauling Russia's numerous and multifarious political parties.

The Kremlin -- supported by the Central Electoral Commission, the bill's main author -- argues Russia's unsupervised 273 parties should be streamlined. That, it says, would ensure more effective and democratic elections, with only about a dozen active parties.

But opponents of the bill argue the government is actually hoping to use the law to gain control over Russian political life.

The version of the bill officially proposed to the Duma by Putin three weeks ago (December 25) reflects plans voiced by the president as early as last February. At a meeting that month of the parliamentary Unity movement that Putin's team created to support him, the president announced his intention of reorganizing Russia's motley collection of political movements into a two- or three-party system:

"Only a small number of parties can have real influence in society. In practice, it's just not possible any other way. A functioning party system has two or three parties. This does not mean, of course, that other parties will have no influence on the state. I think that in our state there's enough work for everyone."

The Kremlin bill would allow a party to be suspended if it were found to violate federal law. The bill also says an organization will only be given the status of a political party - and the right to take part in elections - if it has at least 10,000 registered members spread out over more than half of Russia's 89 regions, and no less than 100 members in each region. Present legislation does not impose any such criteria for forming a political party.

The bill's supporters say it would promote the participation of what they call real and representative parties. They say this would put an end to the practice of many tiny groups, which call themselves parties, of profiting illegally from benefits such as free airtime during election campaigns that they use for promoting themselves.

But reducing elections to a fight between a handful of parties is exactly what is feared by the bill's opponents. They are mostly liberal deputies from smaller political groups such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces.

Few opponents deny that the existing Perestroika-era legislation on political parties needs to be amended. But they argue the Kremlin's medicine is worse than the illness it is seeking to cure. They say that instead of encouraging the development of civil society through political parties, the bill would, in effect, asphyxiate it in order to establish Kremlin control.

Independent Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says the Kremlin is now simply reproducing in the political sphere Putin's program -- reflected in his media policy and centralization plans -- of imposing what Ryzhkov calls a "harsh vertical [scheme] of power." He says the Kremlin is using the bill to create a political system from the top down where the communists and the pro-presidential Unity group will be the only significant parliamentary forces left.

Vladimir Lysenko is a Duma deputy with the small Russian Regions group and co-author, with Ryzhkov, of an alternative law that would guarantee the existence of multiple parties. Lysenko says:

"For the communists, [Putin's bill] would really be a great law because they are a mass party, compared to others. [The bill would give] the communist party a whole series of advantages compared to the younger parties that have appeared recently and don't yet have [the same institutional base and mass] membership as the communists."

Ryzhkov notes there is no Green (environmental) Party in Russia. But, he says, with the further development of civic society and environmental consciousness, such a political group could be formed. Still, Ryzhkov adds, it would take time for a nascent Green Party to rally members throughout Russia's vast territory. Therefore, he argues, the limits set by the Kremlin's bill would make it much harder to create a Green Party in the foreseeable future.