Boris Yeltsin had to use artillery against a parliament in full rebellion. Even the much tamer institution that followed blocked his tax reforms and defied his efforts to fire a nosy prosecutor. Yeltsin never found a way to co-opt the Communists who controlled the lower house, or to discipline the regional bosses who ran the senate. Vladimir Putin has done both. Next year, as a result of Putin-sponsored legislation, regional leaders will lose their seats in the upper house. And in the lower house, the Kremlin for the first time since 1991 will have a working majority.
The Kremlin’s coup in the Duma has three stages. Before the December 1999 parliamentary elections, the Kremlin created the Unity political movement, a new centrist nonideological “party of power” designed to win support by providing access and trading favors. Unity’s first move after the election was to double-cross its putative center-right allies by striking a deal on committee chairmanships with the Communists. The Fatherland party of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the All-Russia party of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov were so furious that they boycotted early sessions of the Duma. But Putin, whom the state-controlled press painted in heroic colors as the scourge of Chechnya, had the public on the Kremlin’s side. Fatherland and All-Russia quietly came back to the Duma and withdrew from the March 2000 presidential elections.
Now Unity (84 seats) is moving to absorb the Fatherland-All-Russia coalition (46 seats). Representatives of both movements have agreed to merge and elect a single leader at a joint congress in November. Two nonparty factions, People’s Deputy (62) and Russia’s Regions (45), have agreed to coordinate positions on legislation with the Unity-FAR alliance. Counting noses, the Kremlin will have 227 of the Duma’s 450 seats–the slimmest of majorities, but a majority nonetheless.
The Kremlin’s move is more than political logrolling. “The planned party frighteningly resembles the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” wrote Anatoly Kostyukov. “Not ideologically, of course, but structurally and functionally, as the… party of the nomenklatura [the bureaucratic elite].” The Duma, like the “reformed” upper house, seems to be losing its role as a voice of the people.