Russian lawmakers bridle at etiquette

Ethics code has been resisted in Duma, where insults, fistfights were common

February 26, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- There has been heckling and the occasional head-butt, hurled water bottles and indecorous insults, bloody noses and at least one concussion.

Lawmaking in Russia's State Duma is not a pretty sight. Neither is the attempt to make it prettier.

Once, during debate of an ethics matter, one lawmaker called a colleague "the No. 1 political prostitute" and railed against the ethics committee for "political whoredom" -- after which a fistfight broke out.

The adolescent post-Soviet parliament has become somewhat more civil with age. Only one fight has erupted in the current four-year session, compared with 10 in the first Duma, eight in the second and three in the third, says Gennady Raikov, chairman of the Duma's Credentials and Ethics Commission.

"This Duma is more professional, calm," Raikov said.

Nonetheless, an ethics code has been submitted eight times to the 450-member Duma to supplement its basic regulations for polite conduct. Eight times, it has languished. Lawmakers will consider a ninth version, now under review by the Duma's legal department, as early as next month.

To the existing rules of behavior -- no "rude" or "abusive" language, no insulting the "honor" or "dignity" of others, no "groundless accusations" -- the draft code adds the offense of poor attendance at house sessions. And it proposes an unprecedented punishment: a cut in pay.

"Isn't it fair?" asked Raikov, a member of the ruling United Russia party.

Some say not. And not just because the dock in pay could violate Russia's labor laws.

"It doesn't have any ethical goals, but political goals," said Andrei Savelyev of the Rodina party, who, under the proposed code, could risk losing a chunk of salary for making such an accusation.

"I think the parliament's behavior in this question is shameful," said Savelyev, who was attacked and given a bloody nose in the most recent Duma fray. "I'm against it because any stricter rules that are adopted will be used against the opposition, there's no doubt about it."

The primary punishment for behavior deemed unseemly, if not unethical -- usually by the full Duma, which is dominated by pro-Kremlin United Russia -- is loss of the right to speak on the floor for a certain amount of time, from an afternoon to as long as a month. But members of the political opposition are the only ones who are punished.

"As practice shows, deputies of United Russia usually play the role of the insulted and representatives of the opposition faction are the offenders," the newspaper Noviye Izvestiya wrote last month.

In December, two Communists were barred from speaking after one referred to United Russia deputies as "comrade wolf," "comrade bear" and "other jackals." The other brandished a list of government officials accused or convicted of crimes, saying the vast majority of corrupt bureaucrats were members of United Russia.

"Gennady Ivanovich called my criticism slander," Valery Rashkin, the Communist who introduced the list, said in an interview, referring to the ethics committee chairman in the most formal, and polite, way.

Raikov said no United Russia deputies had been stripped of their right to speak for a simple reason: They don't commit ethical breaches.

The proposed code's rules of etiquette apply not only during legislative sessions but also during business trips -- at home and abroad -- and interactions with voters and even journalists. The code spells out a rolling scale for withholding a deputy's salary, which reportedly is about $3,400 a month: If he misses 30 percent of the Duma's sessions, he will lose a quarter of his salary. If he misses half, he will lose half. If he misses more than 70 percent, he will lose it altogether.

Sometimes, deputies try to disguise their absences during floor votes by having a fellow lawmaker vote for them.

"Deputies pass their voting cards to each other," Raikov told Noviye Izvestiya. "On the screen, there are 357 in attendance, but in the hall there are 157. Should we count them by their heads? A deputy can later say he simply stepped out."

The most recent fray, two years ago, involved Rodina's Savelyev and a lawmaker who has a knack for finding his way not just to the center of attention but to the center of a brawl: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party faction, and arguably Russia's most outrageous politician.

Zhirinovsky and a group of other deputies lunged at Savelyev as they were leaving the chamber in protest of election results in a distant Russian region.

Not long after the fight, the Duma considered posting marshals inside the hall.

Zhirinovsky -- who has thrown water, a glass and once shouted "Beat him! Strangle him! Rip off his cassock!" in a fight involving a deputy formerly of the cloth -- derided the ethics proposal as a waste of money. Savelyev said a marshal would have to be stationed at all times by Zhirinovsky's seat. He maintains that Zhirinovsky should have been charged with a crime.

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