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Russia: How Will Duma Vote Affect Putin's Policy?

Already strong in the previous Duma, the Kremlin further boosted its influence in the 7 December parliamentary elections by winning a solid majority. How will President Vladimir Putin exploit these new strengths? What can be expected in the next few months as he heads toward the presidential election? Most observers expect a no-risk political strategy until his second term is confirmed in March.

Moscow, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With Vladimir Putin's Duma majority now secure, most observers say the president is likely to sit back and enjoy it quietly -- at least until his own re-election is secure as well.

Most observers believe the Russian president is unlikely to do anything to risk his political standing ahead of the March elections. That means no controversial new laws, no painful reforms, and no constitutional fiddling -- for now.

Henry Hale, a professor of Russian studies at Indiana University in the United States, says he expects the next three months to pass with little political action.

"I would be surprised if there are any radical new initiatives along those lines before the presidential elections. To some extent, I think that his interest politically is to continue creating the image that there is a promise of a move forward after he wins re-election," Hale said.

With 222 seats in the new 450-member Duma, the Kremlin-backed Unified Russia is four seats away from securing a majority in the lower house of parliament. It will take just a handful of the 65 independent deputies elected to single-mandate districts to give Unified Russia the ability to adopt laws single-handedly.

And if Unified Russia rallies its allies from the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc, the People's Party, and Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democrats (LDPR), it will gain an additional 94 seats and the two-thirds majority it needs to pass constitutional laws or initiate constitutional amendments.

An article in today's "Rossiiskaya gazeta," the official newspaper of the Russian government, said the new Duma will "finish what the previous one started" -- adopting perfunctory laws on matters like administrative reform and car insurance.

A more colorful move might come in the form of a high-profile dismissal -- namely, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whose relations with Putin have grown prickly in recent months. Putin can use his pliant Duma to confirm a preferred new candidate.

But most observers are looking ahead to the bigger changes that may be in store once Putin's second term is secure -- like the centralization of government power or the extension of the country's presidential term.

Hale of Indiana University says the promise of major -- but unspecified -- changes ahead may even work to Putin's advantage during the presidential campaign. "If he does something too dramatic, he risks perhaps alienating people at whose expense it might come. So in some ways I think he's better off creating the promise, keeping people uncertain enough so that the people who he might go after don't decide they have nothing to lose and attack him during the presidential election and rally around an opponent," he said. "It's after the election that I imagine he will start moving."

Putin was not necessarily hampered from pursuing his political goals with the previous Duma, where he often managed to pull together a majority -- and even passed several controversial laws in the final days before the election. Still, such efforts took time, persuasion, and delicate diplomacy -- something the president may need far less of now.

So what other potential changes will the cooperative Duma help push through? Some analysts predict that Russia will see an increase of state control over business, and a shift from market capitalism to "state capitalism" marked by a lull in energy-sector reforms.

Hale, however, says Putin may still proceed with certain market reforms. "It's more a continuation of the kind of reforms that he has been implementing in the past, which I think are continuing to develop in the direction of a more market-oriented economy and a more closed political system," he said.

Many observers, like Vladimir Pribylovskii from the Panorama think tank in Moscow, are speculating about what the Kremlin might do once it cobbles together the two-thirds Duma majority it needs to initiate constitutional changes.

"It seems like he now has a qualified majority. That means he can change the constitution -- allow himself a third term, for example. But I think this won't happen right away. Closer to the next elections [in 2008] he'll change the constitution," Pribylovskii said.

Such initiatives have been floated by Kremlin loyalists. The idea of an extended presidential term was first raised last year by Sergei Mironov, the head of the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament.

Technically, such changes would require not only a two-thirds Duma majority, but a three-fourths Federation Council majority and a go-head from two-thirds of Russia's regional parliaments. Changes to fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution require a three-fifths majority in both houses as well as a referendum.

Putin himself has repeatedly denied any intention of altering the constitution. Speaking to a council of lawmakers today, he stressed yet again his commitment to the document he describes as Russia's "foundation," saying: "There has been enough talk about the need to change the constitution. I completely agree that the present constitution provides a basis for stability in our society and that it hasn't been used to its maximum potential.... Our task is to keep [the constitution] and to make the most of what it offers in order to develop the country."

Hale also says Putin's general drive for government centralization is not likely to undergo any further radical twists. He says any move to push regional officials into positions of greater subservience may end up having the reverse effect of pumping up resistance in areas beyond the Kremlin's control. Many of the 100 Unified Russia deputies elected in the regions also maintain close ties to local powers and cannot safely be considered blind Putin loyalists.

"If Putin makes too dramatic a move in the direction of curtailing governors' power, that's the kind of thing that could spur a reaction of these regional representatives in the parliament or the representatives of regional power structures," Hale said.

Hale says Putin's preferred style in dealing with the regions is to make changes gradually, on a case-by-case basis, rather than pushing through abrupt policy shifts.

Last Sunday's (7 December) successful referendum on merging the Komi-Permyatsk Autonomous Okrug with Perm Oblast is seen by observers as a test case. However, it will take at least a year before the legislative and constitutional procedure is complete.

Pribylovskii of the Panorama think tank points out that most regional governors are already a pliant partner for the Kremlin. "Putin can just tell them to submit," he said. "He doesn't need to change the constitution to do that."