Yeltsin promised a stormy new assembly: Inter-party rows threaten hope for 'constructive' parliament

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ON THE eve of the opening of Russia's new parliament, leading reformist ministers called yesterday for the ultra-nationalist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to be prosecuted for spreading 'war propaganda'. Mr Zhirinovsky has already called for the sacking of the reformers for, as he says, ruining the country. Boris Yeltsin wants a constructive parliament but, judging from the pre-session vituperation, he is going to get an assembly even more turbulent than the one he dissolved by force last year.

The new Russian constitution gives the President power not to worry about parliament but it will not be politically wise for Mr Yeltsin to ignore it altogether. The tone of his relationship with the deputies of the Federal Assembly will be set today. He is due to address the Federation Council (upper house) but no mention has been made of any presidential speech to the State Duma (lower house). Its agenda says only that the first session will be taken up with procedural matters after a speech by the oldest member, who happens to be Georgy Lukava, representing Mr Zhirinovsky's extremely illiberal Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Protests are possible at the opening of the Federation Council as regional leaders take over the facilities of journalists and businessmen who are being thrown out of the Press House to make way for Russia's equivalent of the Lords pending the construction of a new parliament complex. But all the television cameras will be at the Duma, meeting in the old Comecon building because the government now uses the White House, for this is where Mr Zhirinovsky will take his seat. The clown who could turn out to be the most dangerous man in the world now charges journalists dollars 300 (pounds 200) for five-minute interviews, but today the show should be free.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Mr Zhirinovsky and other hardliners will be able to create an opposition cohesive enough to harry Mr Yeltsin's free-market cabinet. Russia's Choice, with 58 seats, has dropped out of talks to choose a Duma Speaker because it believes the LDP (64 seats), Communists (48 seats) and Agrarians (33) are ganging up to form a conservative front. But the lower house also contains two other reformist parties, with 41 seats between them, and 154 independent MPs whose inclinations will only become clear in the weeks and months ahead.

After today's gathering, both houses of parliament are likely to close again for some time so that preparations can be made for real legislative work to begin. Perhaps because of the ceremonial nature of the opening, but more likely because of Russians' disgust with politics, newspapers yesterday paid little attention to parliament. Moskovsky Komsomolets preferred stories about a cats' ball, the implications of the dollar being banned from shops and a piece on left-handed people and the Devil.

Mr Yeltsin also seemed reluctant to plunge into politics. For days now, a cabinet reshuffle has been on the cards but all that came yesterday was a presidential decree reducing the number of deputy prime ministers from nine to four as part of a drive to streamline government. We must wait until after Bill Clinton's visit this week to find out whether budget deficit cutters or advocates of social spending are seated after this game of musical chairs.

(Photograph omitted)