Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 125

On June 23, the State Duma approved both a second and a third reading of President Putin’s bill “On the procedure for forming the Federation Council [the upper house of the Russian parliament].” According to Aleksandr Kotenkov, the president’s representative in the Duma, “not one significant amendment” was added to the draft (RTR, June 23).

The most significant of the amendments collectively proposed by the Federation Council were indeed rejected. However, several other interesting amendments were adopted. For example, the Duma decided that the activities of members of the Federation Council should be governed not only by the Russian Constitution and federal law, but also by the laws of the republics and regions which the members represent in the upper chamber (Russian agencies, June 23). Ironically, the federal authorities are currently engaged in a tussle with those republics and regions whose legislation, in Moscow’s opinion, contravenes federal law.

As approved by the Duma, the new law lays down the procedure for forming the Federation Council as follows. Each republic or region of the Russian Federation (“federation subject”) will send two representatives to the upper chamber, one representing the region’s legislative branch, the other its executive branch. The representative of the executive will be nominated by the head of the regional administration (the president in the case of a republic, the governor in that of a region) and must then be approved by the regional parliament. The second deputy will be chosen by the legislature, having been proposed either by the parliamentary speaker or by not less than a third of the members of the regional parliament. Where the regional parliament is bicameral, candidates will be chosen at a joint session of both chambers (Russian agencies, June 23). The new members are to be appointed according to the new rules by February 1, 2001 (Russian agencies, June 23).

A constitutional majority of State Duma deputies (302) approved the bill in its second reading, and 308 in its third. The bill now goes to the Federation Council. The upper house must either accept without a murmur what appears to be slap in the face by the lower chamber, which has rejected nearly all the governors’ initiatives, or it will have to exercise its right of veto. Should that happen, the bill will be sent back to the State Duma, which will have to muster a vote of not less than two-thirds of its members in order to override the veto. Judging by last week’s voting numbers, the Duma will have no difficulty in so doing.

Most press commentators have portrayed the Duma’s decisions as a major defeat for the governors in their power struggle with the Putin administration. Some even interpreted the vote as evidence of the emergence of a new “mobile constitutional majority” in the State Duma. Even if some of those members of the Duma who last week voted in favor of the bill were to defect, these commentators wrote, enough Communist and Agrarian deputies would likely be prepared to vote in a “flexible and mobile” way to ensure passage of the bill in the form preferred by the Putin camp. Any attempt by the governors to block passage of the bill will therefore be easily overridden by the Duma (Russian agencies, June 23).

Things may not, however, prove quite so clear cut. Even before the Duma vote, Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for the Problems of Globalization, predicted that the Federation Council would veto two of the three draft laws put forward by Putin. The Duma would fail, Delyagin believed, to muster a two-thirds majority to override a Federation Council veto on Putin’s proposed bill allowing the pre-term removal of governors. As a result, the federal reforms would be blocked (Russian agencies, June 21). Nikolai Kharitonov, leader of the Agrarian faction in the State Duma, foresaw a similarly bumpy ride for the draft law “On forming the Federation Council.” Anticipating a stalemate between the Kremlin and the governors, he predicted that the Putin camp would have to resort to compromise to achieve the necessary quorum (Russian agencies, June 23).

The governors have so far remained silent. Judging by statements of individual members of the Federation Council, however, it would be unwise to expect that its members will simply roll over. Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev has stated, for example, that the upper chamber favors the creation of “a coordinated system of power in which the place of every institution is distinguished.” If the role of any institution–Federation Council, State Duma and government–is undermined, Stroev warned, “tomorrow we shall find that we have painted ourselves into a corner from which it will be very hard to escape” (Russian agencies, June 23). Stroev’s deputy, Vladimir Platonov, called the president’s draft law “not entirely successful” in its current form (Russian agencies, June 23).

These and other comments suggest that the upper chamber of parliament may well reject the new law. And to assume that the Duma will be able easily to override the Federation Council’s veto may be premature. Interesting though it is, the hypothesis of a “dynamic majority” in the Duma remains untested. The governors have extensive lobbying powers over the members of the Duma which could yet swing the vote in the other direction.

The governors, however, may prefer to keep their powder dry on this occasion. The new procedure for forming the Federation Council is less important for them than several other laws currently slated for consideration. Far more significant is the upcoming bill on the pre-term removal of the heads of regional administration and the dissolution of regional legislatures. Here the governors have already managed to win back very many positions of crucial importance to them. They have, moreover, done so quietly and without the fuss that accompanied the passage of other bills (arousing suspicion that the governors may have created this noise in order to distract their opponents from what are, for them, more important issues).

Boris Nadezhdin, head of the Union of Right Wing Forces faction in the State Duma, has stated that so many changes have been made to the Kremlin’s draft that it is no longer possible to speak of the president’s having the right personally to determine the fate of the governors (Russian agencies, June 21). This means that, even if the governors lose in the short term and are forced to abandon the Federation Council to their teams of dedicated lobbyists, the governors will have won in the larger sense, since they will have avoided the threat of becoming personally dependent on the president’s will.