But the most significant development in Russian politics involves the new State Duma. Some Western observers had hailed the results of last December’s Duma elections as heralding a new era of “pragmatism” and legislative-executive cooperation following years of alleged obstructionism by the Communist-dominated Duma. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) did come out of the December 19 contest with the most votes. But the strong second-place showing of Unity, the pro-Putin party hastily organized last year (reportedly by the Kremlin) and an unexpectedly strong fourth-place performance by the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), which includes Sergei Kirienko and Anatoly Chubais, was said to have signaled a second chance for such reforms as a new tax code and private land ownership. Behind closed doors, however, Unity and the KPRF cut a deal: Gennady Seleznev, the top KPRF official and the speaker in the last Duma, would be made speaker again. The two factions also divvied up the chairmanships of the Duma’s key committees between them, with the KPRF getting the lion’s share. The minority factions, including SPS, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) and Yabloko, denounced the move as a conspiracy and boycotted the vote ratifying Seleznev’s return as speaker. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky compared the Unity-KPRF deal to the 1939 Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact. Acting President Putin did not react to the scandal. This suggests that he had given the deal his blessing.
Some might accuse the minority factions of hysteria. After all, the Kremlin’s calculations were pragmatic: It simply did not want to give the speaker’s post to OVR leader Yevgeny Primakov, who might use it to cut his own deal with the KPRF and launch a bid to challenge Putin for the presidency. Indeed, some observers would undoubtedly argue that the Unity-KPRF deal was simply an example of the kind of horse trading found in any legislature anywhere, and another sign that Russian politics had become more “normal.”
Others, however, might argue that the Unity-KPRF pact shows the degree to which Russia’s political establishment has moved in the KPRF’s direction. After all, the war in Chechnya had already removed a great deal of the friction between the Kremlin and its “national patriotic” foes. And Putin’s emphasis on a kind of “paternalistic” capitalism, one envisaging greater state regulation, combined with his call for strengthening the military and security services, has brought the two even closer together. Indeed, except for the minority Duma factions left out in the cold and a few cranky perestroika-era dissidents, the Russian political elite seems more intent on singing the praises of the “consolidation” taking place under the new head of state. Perhaps the single greatest sign of the new condominium was the fact that Boris Berezovsky, now a Duma deputy, voted for Seleznev as speaker. Last year, Berezovsky repeatedly called for the KPRF to be banned.