Factions hold congress in thrall: Russia's raucous parliament, a volatile mix of politics and personalities, could undermine the Yeltsin reforms

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The Independent Online
Russia's Congress of People's Deputies, elected two years ago to serve a system that no longer exists, mirrors the features of the country's raucous transition to life after Communism - noisy, fragmented and confused.

The lock-step unanimity of the old order has been replaced by a volatile and highly unpredictable mix of powerful personalities and ever sub-dividing amoeba-like political groups.

The Congress, which meets only once every six months, is Russia's supreme legislature, enjoying the power to enact legislation and to either amend or completely revamp the constition. Such power, however, sits uneasily on a body first elected in the long shadow of what, in 1990, was the far more powerful Soviet parliament, disbanded after last year's failed coup. Modesty has given way, under the influence of its speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, to riotous, largely unfocused ambition.

Composed of 1,041 members, 80 per cent of them ex-Communist Party members, the Congress is divided into 14 loose political factions and a large group of waverers known as the 'swamp'. Though voting discipline is extremely lax, Congress members split into three main camps: a core of pro-reformist democrats, centred on the Coalition of Reforms; former Communists and militant nationalists grouped together in the Russian Unity bloc and implacably opposed to President Yeltsin; a middle-ground made up of Civic Union and smaller satellite groups.

The largest single voting bloc is formed by rigid opponents of reform, the smallest by its supporters. And this is President Yeltsin's dilemma - to woo enough support from the centre to resist hardline assaults but to avoid making concessions that would emasculate free-market reform.

The middle ground, the key to the Congress' outcome, is dominated by Civic Union, backed by about 40 per cent of the deputies. President Yeltsin and the Acting Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, have spent months trying to secure their support, offering to tinker with their economic policies and shift a few senior officials.

Civic Union itself has three main components: disgruntled state factory managers who have rallied behind Arkady Volsky; the Democratic Party led by moderate, former-Communist Nikolai Travkin; the Free Russia party of Vice President Rutskoi, who champions a mix of patriotism and cautious economic reform. In the centre also stand a handful of smaller groups and a 'non-party' faction set up for deputies with no other factional home.

On either side of this shifting centre stand the foes and friends of President Yeltsin.

The conservatives, led by a former law professor, Sergei Baburin, are, if nothing else, consistent in their demands - they want the government to resign, and to revive socialism and strong central government. A more recent addition to their shopping list is that President Yeltsin be impeached. They control about 30 per cent of the votes in Congress, drawing on the support of embittered soldiers, die-hard former Communists and state-farm managers terrified by the prospect of their land being sold off.

Even the conservatives, though, are beginning to splinter, with more extremist figures recently forming a new, but already banned body, the National Salvation Front.

President Yeltsin can count on the support of about 25 per cent of the Congress. But while the so- called 'democrats' were in the vanguard of efforts to end Communism, they are far less united in power than in opposition. Democratic Russia, the umbrella movement that organised President Yeltsin's successful election campaign in 1991, has splintered, with many of members drifting off into the 'swamp'.

Mr Yeltsin's problem is that he was elected not by a party but a popular movement based on a single issue: opposition to Communism. Last week he moved to correct this weakness by calling for the formation of a strong reformist party with him at its head.

(Photograph omitted)