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Russia: Moscow City Duma Backing Away From Independence That Once Set It Apart

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov is one of Russia's most powerful politicians and is reputed to run the capital city with an iron fist. Municipal lawmakers, however, have praised the Moscow City Duma as one of the country's more democratic institutions. But some critics suggest the body is set to lose any independence it has.

Moscow, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Since coming to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done much to curtail the independence of the country's federal parliament. The Moscow City Duma, by contrast, has won praise for its relative independence.

Moscow legislator Tatyana Portnova said the City Duma is often open to debate administrative policy and initiatives coming from City Hall. "A lot depends on the mayor. And the mayor is actually a very democratic person who prefers the duma to be democratic. It's even easier for him to work because of that," Portnova said.

Such an evaluation may come as a surprise to many. Populist Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has a well-earned reputation for running his city in autocratic fashion, retaining tight control over businesses and almost all aspects of city policy.

Some observers are more skeptical of the City Duma's independence. Vladimir Pribylovskii is president of the Panorama political research group. "You can count on your fingers the number of deputies who take independent positions. There are about four of them, two of whom can be named: [Yevgenii] Bunimovich from Yabloko and [Dmitrii] Kotaev from the Union of Rightist Forces. These are people for whom Luzhkov's opinion does not form the basis for their votes. Perhaps there are a couple other deputies who see themselves as more or less independent. But in general, it's a fully paid-for duma," Pribylovskii said.

Bunimovich is a poet and former teacher with a reputation for representing the interests of schools and other public institutions. He told RFE/RL that despite the fact that the city administration gets its way on most important issues, the Moscow City Duma does stand out from the State Duma. "There remains in the Moscow [City] Duma, after all, some degree of respect for concrete professional expertise in a given area. Let's say, if I head the Education Committee and I'm also a member of Yabloko, that doesn't mean a member of, say, Unified Russia will vote against a proposal of mine because I'm from a different party and they have another proposal. In Moscow, there still exists a relatively respectful attitude toward professional expertise," Bunimovich said.

Bunimovich described the city government as a "showcase," saying that because Moscow occupies a prominent position in the country's politics, the City Duma is obliged to set an appropriate model.

He also said the presence of the federal government in Moscow serves to temper Luzhkov's powers, meaning the City Duma is freer from mayoral control than most provincial parliaments in Russia. But some deputies now say a federal requirement to change voting procedure for elections in 2006 will reverse any independence the Moscow City Duma now has.

The City Duma's 35 seats are currently occupied by individual candidates who won simple majorities in each of their districts. Next time around, half the seats will be allotted to political parties that will draw up lists of candidates to occupy as many seats as the party's percentage of the vote allows.

That pattern will bring the city legislature's election practices into line with the State Duma's.

Some deputies say the change is necessary to help develop party-based democracy.

But Bunimovich said party-list voting will further politicize the parliament because deputies will vote along party lines rather than their individual positions.

Luzhkov himself is against the change and has threatened to challenge it in the country's Constitutional Court. Analysts say the mayor is keen on maintaining personal relationships with city lawmakers, something that allows him to work around the duma as an institution. Party-line politics would make this more difficult.

The move away from independence is already evident. Fourteen of the Moscow Duma's 35 seats belong to members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, of which Luzhkov is a top federal-level leader.

That dynamic helps the mayor ignore opposition from other legislators. Bunimovich cited a recent case in which the city raised utility bills without consulting the duma, as is required by law. Deputies protested and eventually won a legal appeal forcing the administration to send the matter through parliament.

But despite his evident unwillingness to engage Moscow's lawmakers, observers say Luzhkov still hopes to improve his democratic credentials ahead of mayoral elections this December.

One of the most visible clashes between the administration and deputies is policy over statues and monuments. Luzhkov has peppered the city with creations of his favorite artists to loud objections by members of the city's cultural elite.

The mayor last year appeared to go too far, proposing to resurrect a statue of reviled former secret-police chief Feliks Dzerzhinskii. Critics said Luzhkov was attempting to curry favor with President Vladimir Putin, an former KGB spy.

At the same time, the administration went ahead with plans to remake the leafy, quaint central Moscow neighborhood of Patriarch's Ponds, best known as the setting for the opening of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margerita." Luzhkov planned to erect a massive statue of Bulgakov and key characters and objects from the novel. Critics say such monuments will irreparably scar the historic neighborhood.

Following a public outcry, the mayor decided to consult with deputies, including Bunimovich. "[Luzhkov] is already reconsidering his decision, saying that it was hasty and that another decision must be reached, that is, ahead of elections, [dialogue] is taking place now. He's not listening to deputies because the duma is becoming a more important organ, but because one way or another, deputies will make the people's opinions clear," Bunimovich said.

Pribylovskii, meanwhile, said a much more important issue is a recent threefold raise in rent schools must pay the city, something Bunimovich did not succeed in protesting.