Russia's new parliament is called to order, but it looks more like chaos

January 12, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the insouciant bad boy of Russian politics, swept in and out of the nation's brand-new parliament yesterday looking as though he was having the time of his life.

He made nasty remarks about the Americans, the French, the Germans. He spied a Hungarian television crew and tossed a few insults at Budapest. He laughed, he roared, he shrugged, he pounded. In his wake came jostling cameramen and reporters, followed by the big bloc of extreme nationalist Liberal Democrats who have now taken their seats with him in the middle of Russia's new lower house, or Duma.

Yet for all the show, it slowly became evident as the Duma's first day ground along that it is not Mr. Zhirinovsky's party but the Russian Communist Party that has the biggest claim to power in the legislature.

The Communists -- with their close allies, the Agrarians and the Women of Russia -- are short of a majority, but their appeal among independent legislators seems to be so strong that they may end up dominating the Duma.

Mr. Zhirinovsky may have to shout from the sidelines, for the democratic reformers seem prepared to take on the role of obstructionists to Communist proposals.

Nothing is concrete, of course, in this latest event in the Russian democratic adventure. Yesterday was, all in all, a chaotic beginning for Russia's new parliament, 112 days after President Boris N. Yeltsin dispatched the previous one with the help of tank fire.

Order was at a minimum in the hall, legislators shouted back and forth at each other, and the acting chairman, Georgy Lukava, a Liberal Democrat, appeared to be trying to manipulate the debate, but ineptly.

"It's awfully sad to see how this is working," said Gennady Burbulis, one of the leaders of the reform-minded Russia's Choice bloc.

"We can't go on like this," said Viktor Sheinis, of a rival democratic group.

"It was a madhouse," said Mikhail Poltoranin, another reformer who has recently had a falling-out with his old friend, Mr. Yeltsin.

Things were quieter across town, where the upper house, called the Federation Council, was also holding its first meeting. The council is composed largely of veteran political leaders, all from Russia's regions, who are less inclined toward bombast.

The council was designed, under Mr. Yeltsin's new constitution, to act as a buffer between the rabble-rousing Duma and the executive branch. It could, of course, choose to strike out on its own, but there were few signs of that yesterday.

Mr. Yeltsin opened the council session.

He called for "a complete and categorical exclusion of violence from the political life of the country."

And then he took what appears to have been a swipe at Mr. Zhirinovsky, whose strong showing in the election Dec. 12 astonished not only Mr. Yeltsin but much of the world.

"There is no justification for those who are instigating mass disorders," the president said. "No one should escape responsibility for calls to violence, for the incitement of ethnic, social or religious strife."

Yet, in the face of Mr. Zhirinovsky's evident appeal, Mr. Yeltsin seemed more intent than ever on displaying his patriotic credentials.

He dwelt at length on Russia's leadership of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the union that includes most of the former Soviet republics. "It is Russia's role to be first among equals," he said. "Russia is a great power."

Mr. Yeltsin, perhaps pointedly, did not stop by the Duma.

"He wanted to show how unimportant the parliament is," complained Grigory Yavlinsky, a reformer who is not a fan of the president. "His understanding of democracy is very vague."

Indeed, on paper the Duma is not a very important branch of parliament. Both the Federation Council and Mr. Yeltsin himself can overturn its decisions, and Mr. Yeltsin has the right to dismiss it if he chooses. But as a forum for discontent it could prove to be highly effective.

The Duma has 450 members. There are about 140 certified reformers, 120 Communists and allies, and 64 Liberal Democrats. There are a few smaller parties that are hard to pigeonhole, and about 120 independent members.

In daylong politicking over a structural issue -- setting the minimum number of legislators needed to create an officially recognized "deputies' group" -- the Communists, already the most organized and disciplined of the blocs, appeared to draw strong support from the independents.

But it wasn't quite strong enough for them to get their way completely.

The issue was important because each deputies' group has the right to be heard on key issues and to nominate members of special committees. The Communists wanted a high minimum -- 50 -- which would have forced the Duma into a fairly rigid, and predictable, structure composed of a few large groups.

The democrats, looking ahead toward an era of legislative guerrilla warfare, wanted a much smaller minimum -- 20 or even 14 -- so as to create many groups, with many voices, and many opportunities for coalition-building.

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