Russia's Cabinet under attack

Unity Party to join a vote against itself

March 06, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - With trouble afoot on several fronts, the pro-Kremlin party in the parliament is getting ready to move against the pro-Kremlin Cabinet running the country, a move that could protect their Unity Party from being punished later for a faltering economy.

Leaders of the Unity Party said yesterday that they were prepared to back a vote of no-confidence in the government that was first proposed by the Communists, but hastened to add that they were motivated solely by expediency. Principles, they assured the nation, have nothing to do with it.

If a no-confidence motion is passed by parliament, new elections will likely be called, and Unity leaders have calculated that they would be able to improve their standing. The Cabinet they want to protest against is largely made up of their own members, but that, they argued, is beside the point.

"I want to say straightaway that we are not allying ourselves with the Communists," said Frants Klintsevich, the Unity leader in the Duma, or lower house of parliament. "We do not believe that the government is bad. We are going for a dissolution of the Duma."

Since the current parliament was elected in December 1999, Russia has been coasting through a rare moment of political serenity. The government is popular among ordinary people - but more than a few politicians and officials here believe that cannot last.

The reason? It's the economy.

Last year Russia enjoyed a modest upturn, but output declined in January, and President Vladimir V. Putin's chief economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, says the country is already in recession. The budget is so unrealistic, according to Leonid Sedov, a public opinion researcher, that it has "put the country on the brink of a new default."

Some here believe that Russia may be facing the threat of a financial collapse as severe as one in August 1998, when the government defaulted on a debt pyramid it had constructed and the ruble lost 75 percent of its value.

If the crunch comes, it will most likely be the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov that takes the heat. And it is in the face of this possibility that Unity may actually be making its move. The party may be trying to engineer a snap election before things go bad - or it may be trying to step out of the way so as to avoid the blame when the economy starts to come crashing down.

The widespread power and heating failures in the Far East this winter have offered an instructive example of how badly things can go wrong here - when crumbling infrastructure and bad management are mixed with pervasive corruption. Putin has let it be known that he is unhappy with the performance of the Cabinet - which he appoints - on the issue of corruption in particular, and in general with its inability to make progress against smothering bureaucracy and bribery.

Klintsevich said the Unity faction in the Duma would make its decision today on how to vote. If the parliament votes twice for a no-confidence motion, either the Cabinet or the parliament must be dissolved.

Some analysts last night concluded that Unity was trying to make it easier for Putin to dismiss Kasyanov. But it appeared likely that given the choice between dismissing the Cabinet or calling parliamentary elections, the Kremlin would go with elections.

Sedov's polling shows that Russians are satisfied with the government in general but seem hard-pressed to name anything specific.

Putin is popular primarily because he is not like his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin - that is, not physically feeble. But he has few accomplishments to which he can point. Many people, for instance, approved of his legal attacks on the oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, but Sedov's sampling shows they believe other tycoons still hold just as much sway over the Kremlin.

Yesterday, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref unveiled a "de-bureaucratization" program. About 500 different kinds of business require a government license; Gref wants to reduce that to about 100. The licensing system is fraught with possibilities for graft and extortion.

In one industry, which Gref did not identify, he said a license nominally costs 15,000 rubles, or about $500. But to obtain such a license, he said, actually costs about $400,000. Out of that, of course, the government still only gets the $500.

Overall, Gref said, licensing costs the economy about $6 billion a year - which if freed up would be more than enough to avoid some of the trouble on the horizon.

But Gref acknowledged that the parliament, even while clamoring for more action from the Cabinet, is sure to start bending to pressure from various ministries and water down the "de-bureaucratization" legislaiton.

Yet before that bill even gets to parliament, Unity may have succeeded in its strange alliance with the Communists against the government, and the question may be up in the air as politics-weary Russians troop to the polls.

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