In the 1990s, Russia's parliament was known for fistfights and other raucous scenes
. But no longer.
Last May, Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, became better known for a new practice caught on video
and broadcast on Russian television news: staffers of the majority United Russia party running from desk to desk in an almost empty chamber, pushing voting buttons.
The bill -- which forbade drivers from consuming any alcohol -- passed overwhelmingly by 449 out of 450 votes despite the fact that only 88 deputies, fewer than a quarter of legislators, were present.
The Duma has since adopted new regulations requiring deputies to attend sessions. But many deputies believe that will make no difference to a legislature so dominated by the Kremlin. The current speaker, Boris Gryzlov, once became a laughingstock for chiding another deputy by saying parliament was "not a place for discussion."
Communist Victor Ilyukhin, a member of the only opposition party in parliament, says the Duma no longer functions as an independent branch of power. "Legislation is not made in the Duma, but by the Kremlin and the government," he says. "All decisions about whether or not to pass bills are made there."Debate Closed
Duma deputies applaud the passing of legislation that would lengthen the presidential term in November 2008.
Such powerlessness is a far cry from the 1990s, when the Communist-dominated legislature was remarkably successful at obstructing the government's market reforms under President Boris Yeltsin. Ilyukhin even managed to lead an unsuccessful drive to impeach the country's powerful leader.
"We had real debates and passed real amendments," he says, unlike today, when decisions made behind closed doors are enforced by the so-called "party of power," United Russia, which is headed by Prime Minster Vladimir Putin and holds 315 of parliament's 450 seats.
Ilyukhin says bills brought to the parliament's floor are often immediately followed by motions from United Russia deputies to end any debate. The majority votes in favor, and, Ilyukhin says, "that's that."
"When the government's budget is being discussed, for example, government officials, even the finance minister, come to our offices, but only to inform us what decisions have already been reached," Ilyukhin says.
Kremlin critics say even the Communists, the second-largest party in the legislature with 57 seats, aren't interested in providing any real resistance to the government.
Two parties that are broadly supportive of the Kremlin, the ultranationalist Liberal Democrats and the center-left A Just Russia, hold 40 and 38 seats respectively.
Serving The Bureaucrats
Russia's liberal opposition lost its Duma seats during the last elections in 2007, after the Kremlin raised the barrier of votes needed to qualify from 5 to 7 percent. Single-mandate districts, which once accounted for half the seats in parliament, were also abolished so that only candidates from parties that qualify are eligible.
The new rules closed the political process to groups such as the Yabloko party, whose leader Sergei Mitrokhin agrees United Russia has "100 percent control" of parliament.
Yabloko leader Segei Mitrokhin likens today's opposition parties to Soviet-era dissidents.
"It's a party of bureaucrats and business oligarchs and serves the interests of the government and the presidency," Mitrokhin says. "Parliament doesn't control the executive branch but adopts legislation aimed at helping bureaucrats and big business, which is contrary to the interests of Russia's citizens."
Mitrokhin says the Duma's recent decision to extend the president's term from four to six years shows "all Russian legislation is corrupt." And he says there's little hope anything will change soon because the Kremlin has effectively shut out opposition parties from taking part in elections by ballot stuffing, obstructing legal challenges, and many other such measures.
Among the country's highly restrictive rules, Mitrokhin cites the requirement for parties not already in parliament to collect more than 100,000 signatures of support. He says regulators have arbitrary powers to disqualify signatures they claim to be forged or otherwise improperly collected. "The entire electoral system is directed at falsifying the results," he says.Fighting From The Outside
United Russia members disagree. They blame the opposition for failing to appeal to voters. Deputy Viktor Semyonov -- who also heads Belaya Dacha, the country's largest vegetable produce company -- says there's "no debate" in the Duma because opposition parties provide only symbolic criticism of the Kremlin.
"They should be actively working with the people instead of whining about how things aren't as they'd like them to be," Semyonov says. "They have to fight and not simply issue weak proposals from underneath the sofa."
Semyonov says he sees no problem in the Kremlin's control over United Russia. "All parties of power in the world are controlled from above," he says, and maintains the Duma remains an important part of the legislative process.
Political experts disagree. Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank says parliament is essentially run by the influential first deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, who's widely believed to be the country's chief ideologue.
"The Duma is no longer a parliament, not even a forum for lobbying," Pribylovsky says. "It has only one major function left: to demonstrate to the West that Russia has a parliament."
Pribylovsky says Duma sessions have been so poorly attended because legislators "don't have anything to do there. It's just a bore." He says parliament serves as a kind of club for influential businessmen and others for whom membership is a reward for political loyalty. One of the benefits, Pribylovsky says, is a measure of immunity from the state's voracious bureaucratic machine.
"If you're elected to the Duma, or rather essentially appointed, it means Fire Code inspectors won't come to your business looking for bribes," Pribylovsky says. "If you're a committee chair, you're probably also safe from tax inspectors, although not from the Federal Security Service."
Under such conditions, Yabloko leader Mitrokhin says the only avenue open to opposition parties is to offer alternatives to the authorities from outside the political system, not unlike Soviet-era dissident groups. "They had no power, not even legal status," he says, "but they still managed to play an important role."