Russia's lower house to be headed by Communist Yeltsin foe

January 15, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Communists joined forces with extreme nationalists in the lower house of Russia's new parliament yesterday to elect as chairman a firm opponent of President Boris N. Yeltsin's reform program.

In doing so, the forces arrayed against the president made clear how easily they can control the Federal Assembly's lower body, the Duma.

On a day when tempers once more got out of hand -- a frustrated legislator threw a punch at Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the extroverted nationalist, during the lunch break -- most of Mr. Yeltsin's allies in the end simply abstained on the final vote.

And thus Ivan Rybkin, a Communist Party leader in the old parliament who has entered the Duma as chief of the closely allied Agrarian Party, won the chairman's post easily.

The only other vote-getter was a former weightlifter and virulent nationalist who in the end endorsed Mr. Rybkin. The final vote was 223-23.

The outcome in a way cemented what legislators and others had suspected ever since the Duma first met Tuesday: that the Communists, allied with the Agrarian Party and Women of Russia, had enough support among independent members to control the lower house. Mr. Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats appear to have little real alternative except to go along with them.

What is not definite, though, is how the Duma will get along with Mr. Yeltsin and his Cabinet of reformers. As president, Mr. Yeltsin enjoys a considerable amount of autonomy under the new constitution, and his position was bolstered Thursday when a key ally, Vladimir Shumeiko, was elected speaker of the upper house, or Federation Council.

Mr. Shumeiko suggested that the Cabinet and the Federation Council should simply ignore the Duma -- which didn't win him many friends there but which is a distinctly possible course.

The Communists' and nationalists' combined strength, for instance, is not sufficient to override vetoes of Duma legislation. Thus they will not be able to force their will on the government.

Hanging over them is Mr. Yeltsin's power to dissolve the Duma and order new elections.

Realistically, that could be a very difficult step for Mr. Yeltsin to take, after his violent seizure of the old parliament.

The Communists and their allies are sure to capitalize on that. But they have to show that the Duma is a legitimate body that the rest of the nation should take seriously.

So far, there hasn't been too much evidence on that score -- and mostly because of Mr. Zhirinovsky.

If ever there was a man who enjoyed his fame it would seem to be the former foreign-language student who now leads the nationalists' charge. He's at the center of the vortex -- German television in particular can't get enough of him -- and from it he unreflectively spews out insults and threats, seemingly as fast as he can make them up.

Yesterday, he paid one of the prices of such fame, when another legislator, Mark Goryachev, apparently became infuriated at the way waiters in the Duma's lunchroom were scurrying to serve Mr. Zhirinovsky ahead of others.

After a heated argument, according to reports, Mr. Goryachev punched him in the face. Mr. Zhirinovsky told Mr. Goryachev he would be the first to be jailed when the Liberal Democrats take power.

It was because of events like these that, at the end of the new parliament's first week, Vice Premier Alexander Shokhin was moved to say, "The major threat to the state Duma is the state Duma itself."

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