The Russian Duma is to meet late this afternoon to decide whether to hold a vote of no-confidence in the government. In a surprise move, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has raised the stakes by letting it be known that, if the vote goes against his government, he will immediately resign. Chernomyrdin’s move is calculated to force the Duma to back down. Until last night, the no-confidence vote, called for by the Communist faction and their nationalist and agrarian allies, looked like a rather pointless exercise expressing the Duma’s general opposition to the government’s cost-cutting plans. But Chernomyrdin’s move has sharply raised the potential costs of a no-confidence vote: under Article 117 of the Russian constitution, the president is not obliged to heed the first such vote but, if the Duma votes no confidence twice within three months, the president has the right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. A second vote could easily be arranged since the prime minister may himself submit to the Duma a motion of confidence in the government. In 1995, Chernomyrdin forced the Duma to back down in similar circumstances.
The government would clearly prefer to avoid a showdown with the Duma at this time. Threatening to resign carries few risks to the prime minister himself, since Chernomyrdin must surely have been assured by President Yeltsin that the latter will retain him in office regardless of the outcome of today’s vote. But, as First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov pointed out yesterday, political turmoil now would not only leave Russia without a budget but would deter potential foreign investors at a moment when the economy is showing long-awaited signs of growth. Fresh elections are likely, moreover, to return a parliament even more hostile to the government than the present Duma, which is dominated by Communists and nationalists. The election of a more confrontational parliament might not even be in the interests of the present opposition. This was admitted yesterday by nationalist parliamentarian Aleksei Podberezkin, who said that a new Duma would be dominated by "unprofessional radicals" who would be "less constructive" than the current membership. (Itar-Tass, October 14)
The government held out an olive branch last night when Chernomyrdin said that the government prefers "an open dialogue" to "votes and rows" and is not opposed to the opposition’s proposal that a roundtable should be held to discuss key issues, such as the controversial land code. His words appeared calculated to give the opposition an opportunity to climb down gracefully. (Western and Russian news agencies, October 14)
Luzhkov and Chubais at Loggerheads.