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Russia: A Look At the Legacy Of Russia's Outgoing Duma

The outgoing Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, meets today for a farewell session that coincides with the 10th anniversary on 12 December of the country's first post-Soviet constitution and the rebirth of the Duma itself.

Moscow, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The outgoing Duma marked its final session today with a family-style photo session and congratulatory speeches on the lower house's reputation for efficient lawmaking over the past four years.

Mainstream politicians have praised the third Duma as "businesslike" and "professional." Indeed, the parliament has adopted some 700 laws since the December 1999 Duma elections -- including crucial legislation establishing a legal framework for many sectors of society.

These include new civil, administrative, and budgetary codes. There is also the new criminal code, which allows arrests to be made only by court order. The history-making land code cleared the way at last for private land ownership that had been enshrined in the constitution but never put into practice.

The Duma also won special praise for its economic reform bills liberalizing currency regulation and streamlining financial legislation. Peter Weston of the Aton investment fund says the crowning achievement of the outgoing Duma is its new tax code.

"Tax legislation in the last couple of Dumas has been the most positive aspect of reform. They have pushed through with tax reform quite significantly. Next year we will see a further reduction in [Value Added Tax] and in 2005 we will also have a reduction of the unified social tax [paid by businesses]. So I think that if we should commend the Duma, it's the tax reform aspect where they've done really well," Weston said.

Praise has also been heard for the introduction of a 13 percent flat income tax rate.

But not everyone is pleased. Owners of small and medium-sized businesses say they have been left out in the cold in the drive for economic reform. One small-business holder was recently cited as complaining that the Duma passed just one new law that deals specifically with small-scale entrepreneurial issues.

Weston explains, "The point is that in July of this year, they set up a so-called 'one-stop shop,' which means that you were supposed to be able to go to one place and register your business, and that should take just a couple of days. That is not working. For that you also need to combine small business legislation -- improvements for small businesses -- with improvements to the bureaucracy, for instance, civil servants' reform. And that has not happened."

In its last week of legislative work, the Duma hurriedly adopted two measures hitting hard at Russia's biggest business.

It canceled local offshore zones that had allowed large tax optimization by companies such as the Yukos oil giant. It also boosted the government's power to intervene in trade issues by passing a law allowing it to regulate import and export taxes.

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party held a relative majority in the outgoing Duma, and found tactical allies to rally around pet issues. The pro-market reform liberals happily joined forces with Unified Russia to push through economic reforms, and the Communists supported the Kremlin on issues like resuscitating the melody from the Soviet-era anthem for the new Russian anthem.

More controversial bills adopted by the third Duma include provisions for the import of spent nuclear fuel and clearing the way for greater government centralization.

More importantly, the outgoing parliament in the eyes of many was the one that set Russia on a path toward absolute Kremlin domination and an end to political checks and balances. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov outlined the bleaker aspects of the body's work.

"The picture is completely different when you look at [what the Duma did] in regard to the political system. This was the Duma that helped President [Vladimir Putin] build the so-called power vertical. This was the Duma that dissolved the former influential Federation Council, that adopted a much stricter law on political parties, that adopted harsher elections laws. From the point of liberties, this was the Duma that didn't do a thing for NTV and TVS when those two independent channels were closed," Ryzhkov said.

Alexei Arbatov, a deputy with the liberal Yabloko party -- which suffered a devastating loss in this month's elections for the new Duma -- says that while the Duma united behind important issues like economic reforms, it often caved in to the executive even on issues where it should have resisted.

Earlier this year, for instance, the Kremlin bullied the Duma into adopting a controversial law putting restrictions on Russian citizenship. When the law proved to be a mistake, the Kremlin then told the Duma to adopt amendments to correct the problem.

Politicians from Russia's democratic opposition say the Duma -- corrupt and submissive -- has stopped acting as an effective counterweight to the Kremlin.

Ryzhkov says the Duma was particularly passive regarding the 2004 budget -- especially considering that the distribution of public funds is one of the most politically charged issues of all.

"I've worked in the Duma for 10 years, but I can't remember any other instance where there was only one page of proposed amendments to the budget. When the Duma adopts the budget in a second reading, it gives an itemized budget of all the main items -- defense [spending], health care, education. And usually all the former Dumas introduce some corrections to the government's initial plans according to their political priorities. But this time, the government proposal was voted through for readings practically in its original form, and was adopted," Ryzhkov said.

The first two Dumas had strong Communist factions that effectively sparred with the Kremlin over liberal reforms. But while critics worry a compliant parliament will compromise the growth of democracy in Russia, Putin appears to prefer a cooperative Duma.

"If the Duma is efficient, a president can do a lot together with the parliament," Putin said recently. "But if the Duma is involved in internal intrigues and posing before the cameras, the president will be bound hand and foot."