Yukos affair could muddle Russian vote

Duma: Politicians and parties are struggling to define themselves after the arrest of dissident oil billionaire Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky.

November 17, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - When campaigning for seats in Russia's lower parliament chamber, or State Duma, began weeks ago, voters and politicians paid little attention. What, many grumbled, could be more predictable?

President Vladimir V. Putin was firmly in control of Russia's national legislature. The Dec. 7 elections seemed likely to confirm the status quo. Then, on Oct. 25, prosecutors arrested political dissident Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, top shareholder in the oil giant Yukos, accusing him of swindling the government out of $1 billion.

Now, politicians and parties are struggling to define themselves. Pro-business politicians find themselves criticizing big corporations. Liberal democrats are defending tycoons.

"It looks like the election will be much more interesting now," said Sergei Kalmykov, head of the Moscow-based Development of Parliament Foundation.

What is not clear is what permanent changes, if any, the turmoil might bring.

Russia's relatively feeble parliament has long been a standing political joke for voters, a labyrinth of intrigue for analysts and a source of immunity from criminal prosecution for some of its members.

But for most of its 10 years of existence, the Duma - its name is derived from the Russian word for "to think" - has mainly served as a forum for Russia's disgruntled to vent frustration. After Putin came to power four years ago, the Kremlin gradually imposed discipline. Dissenting voices grew fewer and fainter.

"Parliament should work as a sort of safety valve which takes off extra steam from our country," said Duma Deputy Viktor I. Alksnis, who was injured while protesting President Boris N. Yeltsin's violent crackdown on parliament in 1993. "And this safety valve was switched off in Russia."

Disillusionment with the Duma, he said, led to widespread apathy among voters. There are 12 candidates, including Alksnis, in his district about 40 miles west of Moscow. Only the incumbent managed to gather the 6,000 signatures required to qualify for the ballot. (The rest paid a $30,000 deposit, refundable if they get at least 5 percent of the vote.)

But even the veteran Alksnis had trouble with cranky constituents.

"They even refused to open their doors to signature collectors," he said. "They'd say, `Go to hell.'"

Managed democracy

Yeltsin might have welcomed apathy. He faced opposition-dominated parliaments throughout the 1990s, occasionally resorting to rule by decree or tank assaults to impose reforms. But his successor, Putin, has tamed the legislative beast through what political observers here call "managed democracy."

Mostly, this means managed elections. To this end, the Kremlin indirectly controls news coverage on all three television networks. Courts and election boards routinely disqualify maverick candidates on technical grounds. Prominent troublemakers drop out of politics to take Kremlin posts.

Some analysts think Khodorkovsky was arrested because he successfully lobbied the Duma for passage of favored tax and pipeline legislation and handed out tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

"His ambition, maybe, was to buy the whole Duma," Alksnis said.

It would have been a complicated transaction. Five major parties control about 300 of the Duma's 450 seats, with the other 150 or so belonging to lawmakers elected as independents. The two largest parties include the Kremlin's favorite, United Russia, with 152 seats, and the aging but still spry Communist Party of the Russian Federation, or KPRF, with 82.

Trailing them are three minor players. The largest is the pro-big business and pro-democracy Union of Right Forces, with 32 seats. Next comes the eternally struggling, liberal reform party, Yabloko, with 16 deputies. Finally, there is the flamboyant and ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, or LDPR, with 13 deputies.

Russia's legislature includes a 148-member upper chamber, called the Russian Federation Council, a sort of Senate composed of political heavyweights from the regions.

At first glance, political power in Russia's legislature appears fractured and widely dispersed. But it is much simpler than it appears.

The Federation Council, for example, was once dominated by headstrong and reputedly corrupt governors and leaders of regional legislatures. Putin has removed many of these figures and replaced them with loyal appointees.

In the Duma, Putin has used a combination of his personal popularity and "managed democracy" to exert control. As a result, he can count on the support of United Russia, the Union of Right Forces, and almost all of the independents on major votes.

Despite the occasionally outrageous behavior of the LDPR's leader, Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky - who once wrestled a female Communist legislator - the nationalists generally endorse Putin's major initiatives. Even the internally divided Yabloko, while questioning Putin's commitment to democracy, backs his economic initiatives.

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