Russian MPs enjoy a taste of true power

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The Independent Online
COCK-FIGHTING PIT, hot-air factory, drinking den and knocking shop - the popular image of the Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament) and the glossy-jowled men in grey suits who sit in it, could scarcely have been worse.

Until now. Now the tectonic plates beneath Russia's political system are shifting, weakening the ground beneath the broken figure of President Boris Yeltsin. And suddenly, the honourable gentlemen have caught a whiff of power.

Since his restoration to office on Sunday, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the acting prime minister, has been in intense talks with parliamentary leaders. He is wooing their support because he wants them to confirm him in his post. But he may also feel that, if he is to rule for long in a crisis- ridden country, he will have to share some of his power. Or, at least, pretend to.

Thus, he has spoken of creating a broad-based government of "accord". Thus, to the approval of the left, he has disparaged monetary economics as not the only answer to Russia's woes. And thus, too, the wily prime minister-designate has shuffled from pillar to post, absorbing one demand after another.

The loudest of these have come from the Duma's generally cautious Communist speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, who wants Mr Yeltsin's resignation, a constitution that gives more power to parliament and a coalition government.

Mr Chernomyrdin appears to be listening. Last night, before heading for Crimea, he was to meet Vladimir Zhirinovsky, mad-cap leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democrats, the second largest party, and Gennady Zyuganov, head of the dominant Communist faction.

Intriguingly, he is also talking to Alexander Lebed, the popular ex-paratroop general. A commission, with representatives from both houses of parliament and the government, is drawing up proposals on policy. For now, consensus politics is all the rage; tsars and radical reformers are out.

"The government used to treat the Duma as if it was only a mob of chatterboxes," said Yuri Krasnov, head of the Duma's scientific research department. "But now its role has drastically changed. The President and government know there could be a social collapse here. That's forced them to turn their face to parliament."

This may be a fleeting taste for the legislature, but it is an important moment in its short history. The Duma was created after Mr Yeltsin's violent stand-off with parliament in 1993, using its pre-Revolutionary name. But it was restricted by the constitution, which the President had secured by a rigged referendum in the same year, and which concentrated power on the Kremlin.

It can pressure the government by, for instance, holding up the annual budget or the land code, or by refusing to verify the Start 2 arms agreement or, most recently, by rejecting parts of a package of economic austerity measures introduced by government, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.

But it is fundamentally weak. Its overall lack of clout was compounded by a lack of respect, born of lurid accounts of the wild behaviour of its some of its members and the staggeringly numerous - 10,000 by one estimate - aides and guards in their retinues.

There have been stories of wild parties behind its sombre stone walls in downtown Moscow.

Violence has never been far away. A Communist aide was gunned down in Moscow this week. Worse, many Russians have no political faith in the Duma. The former regard the latter as no different from the Soviet fat cats, caring more about access to the trough than ideology.

Once in office, they sweep off to Moscow - a faraway land of free apartments, pounds 40,000 relocation allowances, chauffeured cars, medical services in elite clinics, spa holidays and air tickets.

Its reputation reached its nadir in September 1996 when the newspaper, Moskovski Komsomolets, published an extraordinary memo written by cleaners, fed up with clearing up after nights of debauchery. They grumbled about piles of excrement found on couches. Chunks of leather had been cut out of the seats and backs of sofas, "as if someone was making a jacket".

The issue now is whether the Duma can seize the chance to bring about change, and become a weighty national institution, or whether it will once again collapse in a gust of acrimonious hot air.

Business Outlook, page 15

Leading article, Review, page 3