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Russia: Putin Tells New Duma It Should Serve As Model Of Democracy

Moscow, 29 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's new State Duma held its first session today, during which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party made the best of its electoral landslide earlier this month by securing key decision-making posts.

Boris Gryzlov, former interior minister and the leader of Unified Russia, was elected speaker of parliament. Gryzlov is flanked by two first deputy speakers and eight deputy speakers. All but three -- reserved by law for remaining factions -- went to Unified Russia. The democratic opposition is not represented in the Duma leadership.

The new Duma is the first post-Soviet legislature in which one party has a majority. Also for the first time in post-Soviet history, Russia's president opened the inaugural session. In his remarks, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Duma's evolution as positive.

"A lot has changed in the past years. The Duma itself changed. I would say even more -- and I believe that many will agree -- the whole country has changed. Maybe not immediately, and at the cost of political confrontation, but productive constructive legislative work has started in the Duma. And today, we have a right to call this the strengthening of [Russian] parliamentarianism," Putin said.

Putin says improving the life of ordinary Russians should be the Duma's first priority. He specifically mentioned reforms in education and the health system, affordable housing, and further development of Russia's nascent mortgage system.

Putin also said legislators should develop democratic institutions and serve as exemplars of the democratic system. International observers have said the 7 December parliamentary polls failed to meet international standards for a democratic vote.

The first two post-Soviet Dumas, which featured strong pro-Communist factions, were often bogged down by political confrontation. The third Duma was already dominated by pro-Putin deputies, and this month's elections appear now to have given the Kremlin a virtual political monopoly.

Before today's session even began, Unified Russia saw its ranks grow even further -- from 246 out of a total of 450 seats to at least 300 parliamentarians. Unified Russia claims that dozens of candidates running as independents or for other parties have now decided to join its ranks.

With some 300 deputies, Unified Russia now wields enough power to institute changes to the constitution. Independent democratic deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov called the defections to Unified Russia "undemocratic" and threatened to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

In addition to Unified Russia, there are three other factions represented in this Duma. The Communists, with 56 deputies, lost half of their representation but remain the assembly's second-largest faction.

The nationalist-leftist newcomer Rodina (Homeland) can count on 37 votes, while Vladimir Zhirinovskii's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is the smallest of the four factions with 36 deputies.

The pro-market reform opposition is represented by only five deputies -- one from the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and four from Yabloko.

Some had floated the idea of creating a democratic grouping -- composed of at least 35 deputies pulled together from the ranks of the independents, but Unified Russia today made the task impossible by increasing the minimal number of deputies needed to form a grouping -- from 35 to 55. And to make matters worse, SPS deputy Pavel Krashenninikov, the influential head of the former State Duma's Judicial Committee, defected to Unified Russia.

When the Duma meets again on 16 January, it will distribute the memberships of the legislature's 26 commissions -- also to Unified Russia's advantage.

The Kremlin is also expected to boost its influence by increasing its presence on the key Duma Council. The body sorts through thousands of proposals and decides on the assembly's agenda. New rules for the Duma Council will allow Unified Russia to hold eight seats out of 11, giving it the power to block the public discussion of bills.

However, Andrey Zakharov, head of the Center for Developing Parliamentarianism, a Moscow-based think tank, says that as radical and massive as Unified Russia's victory may seem, it will have little effect on legislative work since that was already well in the hands of the Kremlin:

"We have a parliament whose brain and heart is outside of its body. Already in the previous Duma, there was practically no law that the Duma would not have adopted when the president asked," Zakharov said. "Now the parliamentary procedure will just go even more smoothly."

Zakharov points out that while the opposition, and specifically the Communists, had little influence over key legislation in the previous Duma, the Duma nevertheless served as a political platform. Now, those parties can't even count on that.