Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By Elena Chinyaeva

The political season in Russia is over. Both chambers of parliament have left for summer vacation, the Duma on July 1 and the Federation Council on July 12. In contrast to the long-running 2001 spring session, when important bills were not passed on time, the 2002 Duma proved much more disciplined. And no wonder: The left has been neutered and the center consolidated into a propresidential majority. The Duma is a well-oiled cog in the new Russia’s law-making machine.

During the spring session, the Duma considered 310 legislative drafts and approved 109 laws. Many of the new laws have a large social impact–including laws on agricultural land sales, alternative service for military conscripts, business tax cuts, combating extremism, Russian citizenship and a new criminal code. Bills on these issues have long been debated, but under President Yeltsin the Duma, with left-wing parties in control and the other deputies sharply divided, was rarely able to act.

Making it work was one of Vladimir Putin’s main priorities from the onset of his presidency. The creation of the propresidential public movement Unity, which broke the Communist-led left-wing majority in the December 1999 parliamentary elections, was the first step toward reform. With a working majority loyal to him, Putin, who succeeded Boris Yeltsin on January 1, 2000, pushed the legislature constantly to abandon factionalism and become a well-structured institution, with both chambers effectively performing their well-defined roles.

Political forces in the Duma have been reshaped into a left-center-right structure in which centrists finally got the upper hand. In April 2002 the Communists and their allies from the Agrarian Party were removed from the leadership of the Duma’s most important committees. The centrists benefited most from the change and acquired the power to pass almost any legislation they deemed necessary. Of course, all draft bills initiated by the presidential administration fell into this category.

The upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, is another part of this nearly perfect machine. It lost over the past year what little remained of its independence. The radical changes in its configuration, approved in 2000, took final effect on January 1, 2002, when new members filled its seats. Gone were most of the old governors, who just a couple years ago were able to dictate their will to Yeltsin. Replacing them are representatives of the regions approved by regional legislatures.

Even Yegor Stroev, the governor of Orel and a patriarch of Russian political life, could not retain his position as the Federation Council’s president. He was replaced on December 5, 2001, by Sergei Mironov, a former vice speaker of St. Petersburg’s legislature who happened to know Vladimir Putin from the latter’s days as deputy mayor of St Petersburg.

On its last day, July 11, the Council approved twenty-eight bills that had passed through the Duma. Sergei Mironov summed up the Federation Council’s work: thirteen sessions held, 111 federal and four constitutional bills considered and all but six approved. The Council also initiated five legislative drafts.

Laws issued forth from the new Russian parliament as hot rolls from the oven. Considering that old parliament could neither pass a timely budget nor in fact decide anything on any issue, this radical change in effectiveness might be considered positive.

But just as rolls in the oven are made to the taste of the baker, the laws in the parliament are made to the taste of the sponsor–in most cases, the executive. The laws are not necessarily bad, but their quality somehow becomes irrelevant in the process. The main goal of this legislative haste, it seems, is to plug the gaps in the legal foundations of the state however crudely, with the finishing touches put off to a later date. And a great many gaps there are, in almost every sphere of business or social life.

The parliament’s work this year included legislation to allow the private ownership and sale of agricultural land, a problem that Russian revolutions have so far failed to solve. Another bill addressed the constitutional right of conscripts to substitute civilian for military service–but the new alternative, a four-year stint in a militarized camp, seems more like a prison sentence than civilian service.

A long-expected tax cut for business passed with additional measures to simplify business registration, but implementing it has so far been a failure.

A new law on Russian citizenship defines the status of aliens in Russia. Russian-speakers from the CIS countries will for the first time be treated like other foreigners. Previously, any former Soviet citizen could gain Russian citizenship simply by registering. Under the new law, applicants are required to live legally in Russia for five years, have a proven source of income and pass what amounts to an exam in the Russian constitution and language. The law has been designed to meet EU requirements, and differs little from standard practice in other European countries. But Russian-speakers from the former Soviet republics had always been considered a special case. The new requirements they now face could pose a major obstacle to citizenship. Given Russia’s bad demographic situation, these impediments to citizenship are highly controversial.

The anti-extremism law seems particularly timely in light of the recent upsurge of activity by skinheads and neo-fascist youth groups, but critics say law enforcement agencies could use it to silence any opposition [see the article by Mikhail Zherebyatev in this issue]. As of July 1, however, the new criminal code restricts these agencies in a number of ways–by prohibiting arrests without a court order, for example.

Russia’s transition has often posed a choice between the bad and the worse. The well-oiled law-making machine may be an improvement over a legislature immersed in intrigue and determined to sabotage any executive initiative. But with its new efficiency the legislature is becoming so perfect an instrument of the executive that it challenges the principles of representative democracy.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.