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Russia: Duma Shakeup Leaves Communists Out -- But For How Long?

Pro-Kremlin legislators in the Russian State Duma yesterday voted Communist deputies out of all their major leadership posts. The sudden reshuffle puts an end to two years of formal power-sharing in the Duma between the Communists and pro-government factions. Does the move signify a further consolidation of power for President Vladimir Putin and a chance to undertake long-awaited reforms? Or could it have the reverse effect?

Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Until yesterday, Russia's Communists -- the largest party in the State Duma -- chaired 10 of the chamber's 29 committees, including such key bodies as the Committee on Economic Policy, the Committee on Labor Policy, and the Committee on Industry and Advanced Technologies.

But the party saw its fortunes dramatically change when legislators, by a vote of 251 to 136, approved a resolution stripping the Communists of eight of those chairmanships. After the surprise vote, Communist Deputies Nikolai Gubenko and Viktor Zorkaltsev also relinquished control of two minor posts -- tourism and religion -- which their faction had been allowed to keep. Communist Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev kept his post, but his immediate future is now uncertain.

The vote put an end to a Kremlin-inspired deal, sealed in January 2000, which had given the Communists control of one-third of the Duma's committees as well as the right to choose the Duma's speaker and deputy speaker.

A visibly upset Gennadii Zyuganov told reporters that he would now lead his party into full opposition to the government.

So does the ouster of the Communists from influential positions in the Russian parliament signify a major victory for parties allied with President Putin? And will it speed up the adoption of key reformist legislation expected over the next few months?

Although on the face of it, Putin appears to have scored a crushing victory, analysts question the wisdom of humiliating Zyuganov's Communists and warn that the polarization of the Russian political scene that the Kremlin is actively encouraging could ultimately have negative implications for reform.

The irony is that until yesterday, the Kremlin already had a fair degree of control over the Duma. While the Communists would often delay bills proposed by the Putin administration, ultimately the party proved to be pliant and Kremlin-sponsored legislation got passed. Andrei Zakharov, vice president of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism in Russia, tells RFE/RL that for this reason, he does not expect the reshuffle to have a major effect on reform legislation.

"I wouldn't see this as some kind of fundamental shift, because the parliament has been working in unison with President Putin for a long time already. Putin, after securing a majority of votes, did not face the slightest problem with the State Duma. All bills proposed by the president were adopted by the Duma and even the most problematic bills -- such as the labor code and the land code -- were, in the end, accepted with varying degrees of effort," Zakharov says.

Zakharov says the fact that more reformist legislation covering such crucial sectors as banking, housing and public utilities has not been adopted is due to the fact that the government itself is conflicted about its own agenda.

"The Communists in parliament in no way hindered reform. This is an illusion. I think the executive branch has to ask itself which reforms it wants to undertake and at what speed. Until it's clear on this point, there will be no commensurate reforms. I think we cannot say that public utility reforms are not progressing because the Communist Party is throwing a wrench in the works. The thing is that the executive branch and the key ministries which are tasked with taking up the issue of public utility reforms don't know which plan to choose. That's all. I don't think this was a revolutionary event and that everything will now prove to be a piece of cake," Zakharov says.

According to Zakharov, pushing the Communists out into the cold was a tactical error which could come back to haunt the government. With no cushy sinecures to lose, the Communists will transform themselves from pliant partners into a strident opposition -- as Zyuganov has already indicated. This could boost their popularity among disenchanted voters caught up in difficult economic times, and turn them into a force to be reckoned with in future parliamentary elections.

"Why does our society need to strengthen the role of the Communists? I don't understand. This is absolutely unnecessary. It's better to have the Communists in this opportunistic [Gennady] Zyuganov guise, as they are represented in the Duma today. It's a very flexible party that is ready to agree to compromises that Marx, Engels and Lenin would have never dreamed of. They can be manipulated exceptionally well and are very adaptable. Why make them more radical, more inflexible? I don't understand. I think this was a political mistake," Zakharov says.

Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, says yesterday's reshuffle is part of a clear pattern of Putin's consolidation of power.

"To me it's once again a confirmation of a trend that we've seen for a long time -- a trend away from pluralism and toward a much more unipolar political system across the board. We see it once again confirmed in the Duma, but the same has already occurred in the Federation Council [upper house]. We've seen it at the regional level, we've seen it even in the interactions with business groups, with the media. So whereas under [former President Boris] Yeltsin we saw a proliferation of pluralism within the Russian political system, it's fairly obvious that we see a trend away from that right now. The Kremlin is really trying to impose a quite remarkable degree of uniformity on the political system," De Spiegeleire says.

De Spiegeleire notes that there are some positive aspects to the Duma shakeup. For one, control of the all-important economic policy committee will pass from Communist hands into the control of the Union of Right Forces -- which strongly supports much-needed economic reforms. But like Zakharov, De Spiegeleire says the isolation of the Communists will undoubtedly lead to their radicalization. At a time when divisive legislation on bank privatization and housing sector reforms is expected -- steps which will necessitate more financial constraints -- it would be wiser for the government to have the Communists as quasi-allies than as a sworn enemy.

"The fact that [Putin is] building up this very powerful, monolithical political system also means that you're going to get a lot more activity outside the political system. The Communists are probably going to become much more oppositional outside of the Duma because basically all other options have been barred to them. Especially if you're looking at the social consequences of some of the economic reform measures that will be introduced shortly, it seems to me that the political unrest which might come with that is the last thing Putin would want," De Spiegeleire says.

The balance has now been tipped in Russia, with the Kremlin in absolute control of a large portion of the political landscape. The coming months will tell whether this will prove a blessing or a curse for the ambitions of President Vladimir Putin.