Russia's New Parliament May Prove Just as Problematic for Yeltsin
FROM its first moments early Jan. 11, Russia's new parliament gave notice that it will be no less tumultuous and no easier to deal with than the old. And it delivers a message to arriving United States President Bill Clinton that the path of reform in Russia is strewn with a new series of obstacles.
By tradition and law, the State Duma, as the lower house of Russia's Federal Assembly is called, was opened by its oldest member, Georgy Lukava, a member of extremist nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party. Garbed in his veteran's bemedaled military uniform, he brought his party faithful to their feet with a call for the rebirth of a Great Russia.
Immediately following, a woman member of the Communist Party rose to propose a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in the assault carried out by President Boris Yeltsin and the army against the old parliament, housed in the marble White House across the street. With a moment's hesitation from the pro-government reformers on the right side of the hall, the chamber stood.
In a series of test votes on procedural issues, accompanied at times by angry and jeering debate, the first outlines of the balance of forces in the Duma were revealed. At the least, the broad anti-government array of the Zhirinovsky followers, the Communists and their close allies, and some smaller centrist groups can summon a narrow majority in the 450-seat Duma. On other votes, they may even have a comfortable margin of victory.
The reformers are in a minority and are themselves clearly split. Russia's Choice, led by Vice Premier and reform economist Yegor Gaidar, now finds itself in the curious position of being part of the ruling government but the leader of the loyal opposition in the parliament.
``Practically, we expect the facists and the Communists will be able to collect the votes to have a weak majority in the parliament,'' Arkady Murashov, a leading member of Russia's Choice, commented after the opening session. ``We are strong enough to block some decisions.''
At one point, the reformers refused to participate in a Jan. 11 vote in an attempt to block a decision that appeared ready to go against them.
Mr. Zhirinovsky and his followers already proved they have the loudest voices in the new legislature, taking the cue from their voluble leader as they shouted in unison to dismiss the parliamentary manuevers of their reformist opponents.
But the key organizing role in the Duma belongs to the more sedate Communists, who are well organized and highly skilled in manipulating the reins of power. Led by clear-talking Gennady Zyuganov, the Communists act in unison with the Agrarian Party, which has its base on the collective farms. Together they form the largest single vote bloc.
They also clearly can count on support from the Women of Russia and the Democratic Party of Russia, two centrist parties. Still, women's leader Alevtina Fedulova, who is a leading candidate to become speaker of the Duma, insists her party will ``remain in the center.''
When it comes to key issues, it is too early to see how the votes may go, says Vladimir Lukin, the Russian Ambassador to the US and a leader of the reformist Yabloko faction. But he admits that at this moment, ``basically, the advantage is in favor of the Agrarian-Communist bloc.''
The deputies who arrived at the skyscraper that used to house Comecon, the economic group of socialist countries, were a kaleidoscope of old and new faces. Anatoly Lukyanov, who used to chair the Soviet parliament under Gorbachev and is being tried for his part in the August 1991 coup, is now a Communist deputy again. Along with many old faces were a smattering of Russia's new entrepreneurs, such as young businesswoman Irina Hakamada, elegant in a black suit.
For President Boris Yeltsin, the response, for now, is to take the high road, calling for cooperation between the executive and the legislature.
But behind this is the undisguised strategy of trying to rule from above, using the considerable powers granted him under Russia's new constitution and ignoring the parliament as much as possible.
In the weeks since the Dec. 12 election, Mr. Yeltsin has quite deliberately gathered more authority to himself personally. In a decree issued on the eve of the parliament's convening, he reorganized the government, pointedly placing the defense ministry, the foreign ministry, the police, and the intelligence agencies directly under his control.
The president pointedly choose to deliver a brief address not to the more powerful, and contentious, Duma but to the more friendly Federation Council, the upper house composed of representatives of Russia's regions. Yeltsin called for the parliament to continue reforms and enact laws to protect private businessmen and farmers.
``It is important not to stop halfway,'' Yeltsin said. ``Over the past two years, the foundations of a market were laid. But that is just the beginning.''
Under the new constitution, the president will name the prime minister, independent of the party balance in parliament, who in turn will name the cabinet. The State Duma can veto the choice for prime minister but Yeltsin has already stated he will name again Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, a conservative reformer who has good ties to the Communists.
In his address opening the Duma, Mr. Chernomyrdin pledged a ``new stage of economic reforms'' focused on industry and avoiding any ``unreasonable shock actions.''
Kremlin officials say Mr. Gaidar will also be brought back to the government along with other Russia's Choice leaders. But some in the Yeltsin camp argue this will only provoke confrontation with the new parliament. ``If Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin change the government to an ideologically neutral government, it means we have a chance that in the forthcoming half year or even a year, there will be a kind of cooperation,'' says Yeltsin aide Andranik Migranyan. ``But if not, we will have a clash between the Duma and the government.''
``The big question now is to what extent Russia's Choice, Mr. Gaidar, and Mr. Yeltsin are able to understand that they have no support from the people for [their] type of economic reform,'' says economist Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko faction.