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Russia: Duma Opens For Last Pre-Election Session

Russia's Duma, or lower house of parliament, opens today for its fall session. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the atmosphere and issues as Duma deputies gear up for their final season before elections.

Moscow, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's State Duma reconvened today from a summer break for its final session before elections 7 December. The assembly was opened by speaker Gennadii Seleznev, who asked the deputies to resist campaign fever and "fulfill their [parliamentary] obligations" without turning time on the floor into a "news conference."

Still, the election season will have an impact on this final parliamentary session. To make time for regional campaigning while ensuring some presence at assemblies, the Duma will convene two weeks a month instead of the usual three.

But analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Foundation says a "populist note" will inevitably dominate the fall session -- to the "mutual satisfaction of the Duma and the Kremlin."

"Without a doubt, the accent of this session will [be on] the upcoming elections and the need to prove one's purpose, one's usefulness," Petrov said. "And this is all the more important because in the eyes of citizens, the Duma is not particularly popular and has a very low rating in terms of trust. This needs to be changed so that people will go out and vote."

Petrov adds it is also in the Kremlin's interests to see a high voter turnout and that it is unlikely the final session will see much in the way of controversial legislation. Petrov says many of the 70 bills proposed by the government and the Kremlin are more technical in nature. Planned bills include the introduction of a special insurance fund for banks as well as new legislation on commercial secrets, mortgage loans, and the procedure for changing constitutional law. As every year, a major issue will be next year's budget. The budget is promised an easy ride in its first general reading -- expected 19 September -- by the Duma's pro-Kremlin majority. But the next two readings, when revenue and income items are discussed in greater detail, may give way to more passionate debates.

One thorny issue in the budget debate is a change in tax legislation that will take sales-tax revenue away from local budgets and put them into the federal budget. Despite the creation of a special fund to compensate falling local incomes, many regions fear they will lose crucial resources in the process -- and some deputies are likely to echo this concern.

Another controversial proposal for the 2004 budget is the introduction of a stabilization fund for oil revenues. Similar in principle to the Chilean and Norwegian models, the Russian stabilization fund should serve to collect "surplus" tax revenue coming from higher-than-planned oil prices and invest them in securities.

The idea is that the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on the country's currently very profitable oil market, needs to be protected with a kind of financial "pillow" to cushion the blow if oil prices crash. Brunswick-Warburg investment fund analyst Al Breach explains how it works and why its good for Russia: "It works, as I said, so that excess tax revenue [coming] from high oil prices goes straight into this fund, not passing through the budget. This is from oil tax revenues, not from gas ones -- gas [tax revenue] would go straight into the budget. The fund would not be able to be accessed apart from predetermined situations such as the specifics arent agreed on [yet] but, for example, oil [prices] staying below 15 [dollars] for, say, 12 months. That would mean that they could [then] access the reserve to fund a deficit and support the budget."

Some deputies may try to renegotiate the conditions of the fund despite preliminary agreements achieved with the government over the summer.

Until now, deputies have mainly spoken out on issues of interest to ordinary citizens -- and voters.

The Communists want to revise some of the privatization deals of the 1990s that contributed to the fortunes of the much-reviled "oligarchs." But so far the Duma Council, which discusses and selects the session agenda, has not included the proposal in its fall session.

Sergei Mitrokhin of Russia's opposition Yabloko Party used today's opening Duma session to lambaste the government for heating and hot-water breakdowns that have plagued tens of thousands of Russians in faraway provinces over the past several winters. He said it was time for the government to take responsibility for the annual crisis instead of pushing it into the hands of local authorities.

"In a normal democratic country, whole regions dont freeze up in winter," Mitrokhin said. "So of course in [such countries] its not the prime minister's problem. But in our country, unfortunately, half the country really does freeze."

Citing a Yabloko survey, Mitrokhin said more than 30 regions run the risk of suffering through another deep freeze because "the government isn't prepared for winter."