Russian MPs get down to the facts on factions: Unruly deputies bring chaos to opening session of new parliament, write Helen Womack and Andrew Higgins in Moscow

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The Independent Online
WHILE the upper house of Russia's new parliament worked with dull decorum at its opening yesterday, the State Duma, or lower house, was a scene of utter chaos. This suggested that President Boris Yeltsin may suffer even bigger headache than the old Soviet-era assembly gave him.

The ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, surprised the eager press, however, by making a disciplined parliamentary debut.

Buddhist monks in yellow robes and fur hats gathered in the square outside the former Comecon building, where the Duma was sitting, to express the hope that the new parliament would fare better than the one which Mr Yeltsin dispersed with the help of tanks last October.

The President, who addressed the upper house meeting across town, relayed a message to the Duma calling for co-operation between the executive and legislative branches of government. 'I don't expect you to have identical political views but there are some common values without which we cannot ensure this country's prosperity,' he said. 'These values are civic peace, stability, national unity and renewal.'

But as soon as the Duma session got under way, it was clear it was going to be anarchic. And one could not entirely put this down to the inexperience of the new deputies, for along with the fresh faces above an assortment of floral and spotted ties, many grey visages were depressingly familiar from the old assembly.

The issue which took all day to debate was: what should be the minimum number of deputies needed to form an official parliamentary faction? This may have seemed like counting the number of angels that can fit on a pin-head but it was an important question because the various reformist groups are smaller than the Communist and nationalist ones; if the threshold were set too high, then they could not become registered factions with the automatic right to speak in every debate.

During the morning session, the hardliners made an attempt to keep the smaller groups out by suggesting that 50 should be the minimum needed to form a faction. Irina Kha kamada, an independent businesswoman business who made a bid of 15, was patronisingly referred to by colleagues as a 'girl'. Russia's Choice, the party of cabinet free- marketeers such as Yegor Gaidar, came up with a figure of 20 but this was voted down.

The conservative proposal fell only three votes short of a majority, winning 220 in favour, which should be a loud alarm signal to Mr Yeltsin because it suggests the Communists and nationalists have a working alliance which could completely dominate parliament if just a few more floating MPs join it.

After the lunch buffet, the debate continued and turned turbulent. Pending the election of a Speaker, the eldest deputy was in the chair. He happened to be Georgy Lukava, a former Communist now loyal to Mr Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and he rapidly lost control of the chamber when impatient MPs rushed up to the podium without invitation to argue their points.

Some deputies suggested that the floundering Mr Lukava should be replaced by Anatoly Lukyanov, who was Speaker of the old Supreme Soviet before he was accused of helping to plot the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Then Mr Zhirinovsky stepped in, threatening to call the police to restore order and telling Mr Lukava to stay where he was and switch off the microphones until the deputies had subsided. Finally, a compromise was reached and a faction was defined as 35 MPs or more.

It is hard to know whether Mr Yeltsin should take comfort from the fact that Mr Zhirinovsky showed himself capable of silencing as well as rousing a rabble, or whether he should fear the LDP leader's obvious command over many of the deputies. However, the President should be pleased with the Federation Council or upper house, which can moderate the actions of the Duma. They ignored a bomb scare to plod steadily through their agenda.