Russia's Lawmakers Flex Muscles, Check Guns

March 19, 1995|By BILL THOMAS

It's no accident that the Russian parliament, with its lawyers, limos and members-only elevators, bears such a striking resemblance to the U.S. Congress. "We used the American system as our model," said Fyodor Burlatsky, a former adviser to Mikhail S. Gorbachev and one of the planners of the first post-Soviet legislature. "Your politicians would be right at home here."

Of course, that assumes that they come trained in hand-to-hand combat and armed to the teeth.

Last year, while members of the U.S. House and Senate were arguing over which weapons to include in the controversial crime bill, their Russian counterparts were busy deciding which ones they should bring to work.

In fact, the incoming firepower got so heavy that Speaker Ivan Rybkin warned the 450 members of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, that if they didn't disarm voluntarily, they would have to pass through metal detectors before taking their seats. The threat apparently worked.

Just the same, it's hard to blame Russian lawmakers for wanting to protect themselves.

In the last year, three of them have been murdered, the most recent a month ago in a gangland-style execution in the woods outside Moscow.

The violence has reached the point that Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the outspoken ultranationalist, is demanding that he and his colleagues get around-the-clock police protection.

Noting that the three unsolved murders look like the work of well-organized hit squads, Mr. Zhirinovsky called the crimes a "national emergency.

"If these assassinations had happened in any other country, the killers would have been caught by now," he told a crowd gathered for the funeral of the latest politician to be killed. "In Russia no one is safe."

Since two of the three slain politicians also were businessmen, speculation is that their deaths could have resulted from run-ins with Moscow's mafia gangs. Low salaries (around $75 per month) often force lawmakers into the seamy and sometimes high-risk position of needing second incomes. Mr. Zhirinovsky, for example, sells interviews for $1,000 a minute.

But basic survival is just one of many concerns facing Russian legislators. "We are just beginning as a political democracy and are still learning to cope with problems the U.S. Congress solved 200 years ago," said Boris Zolotoukhin, deputy chairman of the Duma's committee on legal reform. Last summer, Mr. Zolotoukhin and other Russian elected officials attended a special two-week seminar on government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School.

Speakers, including Michael S. Dukakis, and Sen. Edward M. Ken- nedy, were "interesting," though somewhat out of touch with reality, Mr. Zolotoukhin said, explaining that his country's current problems constitute a "unique mess" that only Russians can understand.

The biggest task lawmakers in Moscow face is redefining their authority under a new constitution that puts the largest share of power in the hands of President Boris N. Yeltsin. Following difficulties with the last legislature, which he forced out of business in a bloody confrontation 17 months ago, Mr. Yeltsin made sure its replacement was designed to give him the least amount of trouble.

The Duma's present role is limited to passing federal budgets, appointing the chairman of the Central Bank and approving the president's choice of prime minister. Last month, constitutional amendments were introduced that would permit parliament to hold investigations and obtain other information from the government. But even assuming those measures pass, Mr. Yeltsin is almost certain to veto them, further increasing friction between the two branches.

The Federation Council, the 150-member upper house, is even more ineffectual than the Duma. With many council delegates holding other government jobs in Moscow or in Russia's far-flung regions, meetings often amount to little more than ceremonial gripe sessions. In a bold step several weeks ago, delegates did finally manage to appoint a constitutional court, another victim of Mr. Yeltsin's 1993 crackdown. While the court has yet to be tested, it can now be said that all three branches of Russia's government are back in place again, if not all functioning with equal power.

In January, the Council of Europe voted to suspend membership talks with Russia, saying that it would take up the question only after changes in the Russian constitution created an improved systems of checks and balances.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, a member of the Duma's committee on legislation, welcomed the news, explaining that "parliamentary control should have been in our constitution from the start." Mr. Pokhmelkin, affiliated with the liberal Russia's Choice, one of more than a half-dozen parties represented in the legislature, told the Moscow Times that the lack of such control "gives rise to monstrous high-handedness on the part of the president such as we've seen in Chechnya."

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