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Russia: Parliament Gets Down To Business As Fall Session Begins

Russia's State Duma opens its fall session this week. Priorities for the lower house of parliament include passing the government's federal budget for next year, addressing controversial power-utility reform, and redefining the parameters of local government. With the backing of a pro-Kremlin majority of lawmakers, the government looks set to spend another season ramming its own bills through the legislature.

Moscow, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After a long summer break, the State Duma opens its spring session tomorrow to widespread expectations that its centrist pro-Kremlin majority will continue its practice of quickly passing government-initiated bills.

The lower house of parliament is slated to consider a whopping 535 legislative bills before breaking up for the winter holidays at the end of December. The Interfax news agency cited Duma Deputy Chairwoman Lyubov Sliska as saying 144 bills are considered priority legislation.

Consideration of the federal budget for next year dominates the agenda, followed by reform at national power utility Unified Energy Systems, or EES, and changes to the distribution of power at the local and municipal levels of government.

Led by the pro-Kremlin umbrella Unified Russia party, the Duma's centrists hold roughly 240 seats in the 450-seat chamber. That makes it difficult for the opposition to do much to influence a government-initiated legislative-reform juggernaut set in motion when President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000.

Boris Makarenko is an analyst at Moscow's Center for Political Technologies. He said the fall session will likely not differ from previous sittings in which the government rammed through a barrage of bills that deputies often did not have time to read. "The algorithm of cooperation between the government and the centrist majority in the Duma found a year ago is increasingly becoming a reality and growing because of practical experience," Makarenko said.

Duma Deputy Sergei Ivanenko, a prominent member of the liberal Yabloko party, agreed. He told RFE/RL that as parliament reconvenes, it is clearer than ever that the Duma has "liquidated itself as a political organ."

He added that the Duma, "as a whole, is continuing its line of complete dependence and total subjugation to the executive branch."

Encouraging the process is the so-called "zero reading" that precedes parliament's open-floor consideration of bills, which usually consists of three readings. The term "zero reading" refers to the practice, begun last year, of the government and the Duma's powerhouse centrist factions meeting earlier to agree on general parameters.

Ivanenko said the routine further diminishes the independence of the country's legislative branch, and cited as an example the agreement on the budget hammered out over the past two months between the government and the Duma centrists.

Ivanenko said that debate over the budget, which usually takes up the bulk of the fall session, represents the Duma's best opportunity to stake out its position on the country's major economic problems. "The Duma, in the form of the centrists, the union of four [parties], has already refused to do that. It announced it would support the draft introduced by the finance minister -- that was probably the most visible event that occurred in the period leading up to the fall session," Ivanenko said.

Some parliamentarians, including Deputy Chairwoman Sliska, nonetheless have predicted a major tussle over the budget. But Ivanenko said the issue has ceased to be a matter of political debate, becoming instead the focus of chiefly backroom lobbying.

Makarenko agreed, saying the budget's main points this year will most likely not undergo significant change under parliament's scrutiny. Negotiations will instead concern concrete allocations within the prearranged parameters. Haggling this year, he added, will probably take up even less time than last year, when the document sailed through parliament.

The Communists, who hold a plurality of Duma seats and did much to stall the reform process under former President Boris Yeltsin, are nonetheless powerless to affect proceedings. Already sidelined by the centrists since 2000, they were stripped last spring of eight of their 10 committee chairmanships and gave up the remaining two in protest.

In an ensuing wave of recriminations, the party kicked out one of its most prominent members, Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev, who refused to give up his seat and is now setting up his own organization.

Liberal groups are small and splintered. The largest is the Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS. It boasts of essentially writing the government's economic reforms, but, like the oppositionist Yabloko party, also criticizes the Kremlin for cracking down on political freedoms, including the co-opting of the Duma.

For the centrists, it is business as usual. They say the lower house has finally become an effective institution after years of paralysis under Yeltsin. Duma Deputy Oleg Morozov, who heads the centrist Russian Regions faction, echoed the view in an interview posted on 9 September on the website. "The Duma has changed," he said. "In the past year, it began to successfully combine political debate with routine work on legislation." He added: "It bothers me when people say that that's boring. Parliamentary work is generally a dull thing. In any case, it's normal parliamentary work."

Interfax cited Vladislav Reznik, co-head of the Duma's pro-Kremlin Unity faction, which makes up the bulk of the Unified Russia party, as saying that power-utility reform and the budget rank at the top of the faction's list of priorities along with electoral and tax reform.

Energy-sector restructuring is a highly charged political issue. EES chief Anatolii Chubais has long pushed for liberalization he says would distribute control to regional power companies and help attract investors by allowing market mechanisms to set higher rates.

The sector is still mired in the Soviet-era practice of having the state heavily subsidize public services, which in turn cannot raise enough revenues to increase desperately needed investment.

Critics, including foreign investors in EES, say Chubais wants to give away the utility's assets to regional insiders by effectively engaging in asset stripping. Jacking up charges is also highly unpopular with the country's impoverished population, raising accusations that reform is being carried out to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the masses.

That sentiment is not lost on politicians. On 6 September, Putin told Seleznev during a meeting between the two that the Duma should approach reform at EES cautiously, especially in regard to how changes would affect consumers.

Anvar Amirov is an analyst at Moscow's Panorama political research group. He said the government's views on EES reform are actually closer to that of the Duma's liberal groups than the majority ones, whose members think more control should be given to regional government. "It's clear that in the current situation, the government will try to use the influence of SPS and Yabloko to push forward its position. But the principal lineup won't change. There just aren't any issues that would affect the current lineup of forces because the centrist parties, Fatherland and Unity in particular, base their voting on the Kremlin position on all other questions," Amirov said.

Other issues likely to be disputed in the Duma include banking reform and a plan to address local and municipal government, now the subject of a long-planned proposal by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Kozak.

The scheme envisions a wide-ranging number of bills meant to delineate authority among federal, regional, and local state structures. They form the final part of Putin's restructuring of regional state structures, which has included changes curbing the power of the Federation Council (upper house) and the country's governors.

Meanwhile, jostling ahead of Duma elections scheduled for December of next year will undoubtedly influence this fall's proceedings.

Russian Regions Deputy Morozov told that every discussion on the Duma floor will be politically charged. "That's why I think there won't be any ordinary, uncontroversial questions," he said, adding that the atmosphere will still not affect parliament's prolific activity.

Others disagree. Ivanenko said adopting a budget for an election year usually brings out a degree of populism in Duma deputies that affects the document's balance and rationality. But the effect of politicization will be minimal this year because of the centrist majority's dynamics. "United Russia depends very little on the voter. It depends on Putin. They go into the elections touting not the 2003 budget, but President Putin's name. That's why I don't think the budget will have directly populist articles. However, individual deputies will complain [about that]," Ivanenko said.

The Duma's first sitting will kick off with an address by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, outlining the state of the country's military.