Duma drowns in a sea of presidential decrees

A FRESHLY printed booklet awaited each member of the State Duma as they arrived yesterday to revive a long-stalled experiment in Russian democracy first launched by Tsar Nicholas II in 1906.

Handed out with name lists and a digest of bleak economic statistics, the book was the centrepiece of their induction kit - and President Boris Yeltsin's way of reminding legislators not to get ideas above their station.

Deputies now have the full texts of every decree - 891 in all - signed by Mr Yeltsin between 21 September and 24 December. They have no power to alter them but are invited to 'consider' them. The compilation begins with a sobering text for consideration: decree number 1400. It was with this that Mr Yeltsin dispatched the old parliament to oblivion and set about transforming Russia's political system by executive fiat.

'This parliament will be much better than the old one,' predicted Mikhail Poltoranin, a loyal Yeltsin ally. 'Because it has no power. No matter how much noise it makes on the first day it will be better, more balanced, less arrogant because it is less powerful.'

Everything has been done to emphasise the break with the Communist past and revival of tsarist tradition. The Duma meets not in the White House, renovated after being shot up by tanks and commandeered by the government, but in more modest premises across the road, a conference hall originally built for the Soviet trade bloc Comecon. Even the canteen staff have been replaced to eliminate any danger of a fifth column in favour of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former parliamentary speaker now in Lefortovo Prison. In place of the hammer and sickle on the podium is a gold double-headed eagle, enshrined as state emblem by another Yeltsin decree.

This, at least, is the script. But, as with most aspects of Russian politics these days, scripting has little to do it. While Mr Yeltsin is clearly the most powerful man on paper, it was Vladimir Zhirinovsky who basked in the glow of television lights and constant attention yesterday.

'I've never been a Communist or been in prison, never been in a mental asylum, never been an alcoholic,' he said. Protected by bodyguards, Mr Zhirinovsky then stomped through the corridors, letting it be known at the top of his voice that he considers Francois Mitterrand mad for suggesting air strikes against Serbian forces and Bill Clinton a coward for refusing to meet him. As for Latvia, the day's preferred target of attack, it will have to live without electricity if it persists in being independent.

Mr Zhirinovsky commands a parliamentary battalion some three-score strong. Even the man chosen to chair yesterday's State Duma, 68-year-old Georgy Lukava, was one of his.

The spectacle delighted Mr Yeltsin's opponents, including Anatoly Lukyanov, veteran Communist, former chairman of the Soviet Union's parliament and defendant in the trial of the August 1991 putschists. 'This is certainly not a pocket parliament,' he laughed. 'The confusion is quite normal. There are 350 people here who have had nothing to do with legislature before. It will pass with time, just like a disease, like 'flu.'

By lunchtime, after three hours of unruly procedural debate, some of Mr Yeltsin's allies, outnumbered on the reformist benches, were already asking whether it might be best if the State Duma shares the fate of the first such duma of 1906. The tsar shut it down after 72 days. 'I do not think it will last for a long time, the beginning of the session was like a carnival,' scoffed Gleb Yakunin, a reformer. 'I do not give it more than a year.'

Others pleaded for patience. Grigory Yavlinsky, a reformist economist, said: 'You have to remember how long the road is to democracy. The West had 200, 300 years to get there. We have had only two or three.'