Moscow despairs at 'the Muppets'

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MOSCOW - Nina Derbina, a Moscow pensioner, cursed as she turned on the television yesterday to see Russia's deputies once again arguing on the screen: 'Not that Muppet Show again.'

The trade union daily, Trud, expressed the same weariness in a cartoon of a man, with ice-hockey playing on his television set, ringing up broadcasting centre and asking sarcastically: 'Why can't we have another Congress?'

Usually Russians get a respite of six months between gatherings of the Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet- era assembly to which 82 per cent of MPs were sent by the old Communist Party. But because of the country's crisis, Russians are being subjected to another marathon of empty speeches only three months after the last one. 'Every day of this Congress costs millions of roubles,' said Mrs Derbina, who supplements her 5,000-rouble ( pounds 5) pension by cleaning, 'and all they do is go, blah blah blah blah blah.'

Not only are ordinary Russians sick of fruitless political wrangling when their economically broken country is crying out for good government. The deputies themselves seem exhausted. 'We are all so terribly tired,' said Pavel Medvedev of the Agreement for the Sake of Progress faction. 'The situation is much more dangerous than you in the West realise. You think the risk is of a return to the dictatorship of the past. But it is a risk of total breakdown.'

The liberal Social Affairs Minister, Ella Pamfilova, also seemed on the verge of despair. I met her in the ladies' lavatory during a break in the proceedings. She said she was staying on in the government only out of loyalty to President Boris Yeltsin. 'You can leave this country but I can't. So as long as there is the tiniest hope of success (in reform), I have to keep going.' She added gloomily that her only cause for optimism was a prediction by Nostradamus that 1993 would be the year of rebirth for Russia.

The reforms of President Yeltsin, who was freely elected in 1991, have ground to a halt because of obstruction from Congress, which was elected before the emergence of full multi-party politics. Lack of a new constitution for post- Communist Russia means Congress, which was the highest state body in the old Soviet Union, can go on claiming prerogatives despite the fact that the country has supposedly moved over to a presidential system. Mr Yeltsin wants a referendum to confirm his powers but Congress is likely to thwart him.

Opinion polls show very few Russians support Mr Yeltsin's rival, the Congress chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and it is hard to find anyone who will say a good word for him. Many Russians do continue to have faith in Mr Yeltsin but some are disappointed that he has not been decisive enough. Some are losing interest in democracy because of the endless mud-slinging.

It is interesting to note who, apart from today's deputies, are wandering the corridors of the Congress. On the one hand I spotted Alexander Ogoro dnikov, the former Christian prisoner- of-conscience who runs soup kitchens in Moscow. He said he was planning to stand if fresh elections were held soon.

On the other hand there was the extreme Russian nationalist leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, striding up and down in an electric blue suit. He was raving as usual. 'Look over there, look at Yakun in (Father Gleb, an Orthodox priest and reformist deputy), he'll be arrested soon and he doesn't even guess at the fate awaiting him.' 'Amazing,' was all Fr Gleb said when reporters informed him.

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