Yeltsin castoffs change Duma's face

Emerging parliament offers return to power

February 03, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- When Boris N. Yeltsin was running Russia, he made the firing of prime ministers and Cabinet officials something of a hobby. By the time he resigned the presidency on New Year's Eve, he had created legions of political leaders, tantalizing them with power, then casting them out, impotent.

Now, many of those former statesmen are again purposefully striding through the corridors of power -- in a place they once belittled or ignored. They have gotten themselves elected to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, profoundly changing the character of that still-emerging institution.

Among the 450 members of the new Duma, which began work last month, are six former prime ministers, three former vice prime ministers and a dozen former Cabinet members.

The former prime ministers are Yevgeny M. Primakov, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Sergei V. Stepashin, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, Yegor T. Gaidar and Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, a premier during the Soviet era.

Two financial oligarchs prevailed in the December elections, Boris A. Berezovsky and Roman A. Abramovich. So did such well-known Western-oriented reformers as Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former vice prime minister, and Mikhail M. Zadornov, former finance minister and representative to international financial organizations.

Familiar faces

Their faces are far more familiar to Russians than all but a few of the most vivid personalities from the last Duma. And they are now part of a legislative branch of power that Yeltsin regularly bullied and that they often denigrated as an obstructionist stronghold dominated by Communist dinosaurs.

"This Duma is very different from the last one," said Valentin A. Kuptsov, a Communist leader re-elected to the Duma. "It will be more aggressive, more political, more professional and more unstable."

Many of the newcomers have no intention of toiling quietly away, respectfully following the lead of Duma veterans, he said, and that has already caused a debilitating conflict.

Strange bedfellows

During the Duma's first meeting Jan. 18, the Communists struck a deal with the Unity party, formed last fall to support Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin. In a day of backroom deal-making, the two parties divided up committee posts and agreed to re-elect Gennady A. Seleznyov, a Communist, as speaker.

Unity, which won a surprising 81 Duma seats largely because of Kremlin manipulations carried out by friendly television stations and newspapers, was expected to support centrists and liberals in the Duma.

Its deal with the 93 Communists infuriated the smaller centrist and liberal parties, which led more than 100 sympathizers to march out of the Duma in a boycott. The ringleaders of the boycott included Primakov, head of the 46-member Fatherland party; Kiriyenko, leader of the 32-member Union of Right Forces; and Grigory A. Yavlinsky, who heads

Why Unity allied itself with the Communists has been a mystery to most politicians. However, the alliance was consistent with a longtime Kremlin strategy of trying to weaken some of the more liberal parties so that Yeltsin could be cast as the lone reformer struggling against communism.

After that, the Duma was seized up trying to reach a compromise that would end the boycott. Finally, with some additional leadership posts on the table, Kiriyenko and Yavlinsky promised to return Feb. 9, and Primakov said that he would as well.

"Now they don't know how to come back," Kuptsov said. "They don't know whether to return quietly or to make a big scandal."

He said the unproductive beginning bodes ill for the Duma, which was elected to a four-year term.

'They want big posts'

"Prime ministers don't want to work as ordinary deputies," he said. "They aren't interested in Duma work. They want big posts. I can't understand why they wanted to come here. If you're a prime minister, what is there for you to do in the Duma? They used to talk about us as if we were serfs. Now they're here. It's only a passion for power."

A dirty campaign

Not surprisingly, the other side finds other reasons for the impasse.

"It all follows from the dirty election campaign," said Stanislav S. Govorukhin, a talented filmmaker and gruff politician. Govorukhin, a nationalist who recently joined the Fatherland party led by Primakov, blames the tone set by Putin.

He criticized Putin for helping to create and promote Unity and for the tough-guy image he projects, regularly resorting to rough, street talk that offends many intellectuals.

"The intolerable situation in the Duma is not because of the newcomers," Govorukhin said. "It's the whole disgusting situation of the country, created by Putin himself. It started with the dirty election campaign, and it has led to an atmosphere in the Duma that is morally unbearable. I don't

see any way out, with such an atmosphere."

Govorukhin, 63, sat erectly at his desk, wearing a dark suit, blue-striped shirt and crisp, tartan-plaid bow tie.

"I can only hope that passions will subside," he said. "Then perhaps we can take up our task of adopting laws."

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