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Parliament Strikes Back In Russian Budget Battle

No-confidence vote precedes the real showdown between Yeltsin and the Duma over state spending, the one area where legislators have the upper hand

A YEAR after President Boris Yeltsin drove recalcitrant deputies from their parliament with artillery fire, Russia's elected representatives are flexing their muscles again in a bid to reassert themselves.

On Oct. 27, the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, is to hold a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his government over the instability of the ruble. Under the constitution Mr. Yeltsin wrote a year ago, this action does not in itself pose a threat.

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But the vote serves as a dress rehearsal for a larger battle the Duma intends to wage against the government. Parliament has the constitutional upper hand in one important area: the budget.

As parliament prepares to debate the 1995 state budget that Mr. Chernomyrdin will present Oct. 26, ``the government is going to have to work much more closely with the Duma'' if it wants to avoid crises, says Sergei Stankevich, a former Yeltsin aide who now sits in the Duma.

``The government seems headed toward tightening the budget, and the threat to remove Chernomyrdin [through the no-confidence vote] is part of the opposition's counter-offensive,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The bargaining is beginning.''

Yeltsin's constitution, which he wrote last December after forcibly disbanding parliament and ordering a military assault on the White House, gives him almost all possible powers. He has ruled largely by decree for the past nine months, and even if the Duma passes the no-confidence motion on Oct. 27, he is not obliged to act on it.

Rather, parliament would have to approve a second no-confidence motion within three months, and even then Yeltsin would have the option of sacking Chernomyrdin's government or disbanding parliament.

Thus it is no coincidence, analysts here conclude, that the budget is at the heart of political struggles between the executive and legislative branches. How state spending is carved up, in a country where government credits mean survival for huge sectors of the economy, is critical to very important lobbying groups.

Most powerful among them are the oil-and-gas industry, the machine-tool and military-industrial complex, and the agricultural sector. Each depends on massive government subsidies for survival; each has allies in parliament. ``In the Duma we have many people connected to specific industries or regions, and they have a great interest in the structure of the budget,'' Stankevich says. And official pledges that the 1995 budget will be tight on credits, to keep inflation under control and reforms on track, have prompted alarm among the lobbyists.

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Although conservative opposition leaders are unlikely to muster a majority for no-confidence motion, they are making the government sit up and listen.

On Oct. 12, for the first time ever, the normally fractious party groups in the Duma united long enough to override a presidential veto by mustering a two-thirds majority in favor of strict procedural budget guidelines that the government must now follow.

That means, Stankevich says, the draft budget must be detailed enough to give parliament genuine powers to check it. And the Duma has set up an agency, similar to the US General Accounting Office, to provide deputies with oversight capabilities.

Twelve days later, as parliamentary factions hammered out tactical alliances for the Oct. 27 vote, Chernomyrdin closeted himself with Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin for an hour and a half.

``Yeltsin certainly consults a lot more with this parliament than he did with the last one,'' the Western diplomat observed.

``The power of the purse can now be one of the most serious factors in Russia's domestic politics,'' Stankevich says. ``So the Russian parliament is increasing its source of influence.''

The Democratic Party, the centrist grouping that put the no-confidence motion on the agenda, says it did so because Russia's economic situation is far worse than the government's ``wishful thinking,'' says Oleg Bogomolov, a Democratic Party deputy.

He concedes that the motion is unlikely to pass, but says that ``what is important to us is to attract public attention to the real state of the country.''

In a precursor to the no-confidence motion, the opposition fell only 12 votes shy of a majority in a parliament poll on the government's report on how it is implementing the 1994 budget.

This suggests that the no-confidence debate will be little more than ``a bright political performance, a tempestuous propaganda show that will not bring any changes either to the authorities' activities, nor to the lives of ordinary Russians,'' as political commentator Sergei Chugayev predicted in a recent issue of the liberal daily Izvestiya.

But at the same time, the debate will give deputies an opportunity to sharpen their knives, as they prepare for an autumn of cutthroat battles with the president over next year's budget.

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