Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 50

The Unity Party’s political council is set to meet today to decide whether its faction in the State Duma will back a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s government. The initiative was launched last month by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and will be voted on tomorrow. Some of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin Unity, including Boris Gryzlov, the head of its Duma faction, said earlier that the party would back the no-confidence measure as a way to provoke the Duma’s dissolution and new elections for the lower parliamentary chamber–if the Duma votes no confidence twice in three months, the president can either replace the cabinet or dissolve the Duma. Other Unity officials, however, including its leader, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, spoke out against the initiative (see the Monitor, March 8). A member of Unity’s faction in the Duma, Aleksandr Fedulov, said yesterday that he would leave the faction if it backed the measure, which he called “shameful.” He noted that it would be strange for Unity to vote no confidence in the government, given, among other things, that the party’s leader is a member of the cabinet. He also said that two other members, Leonid Belyaev and Aleksandr Shuev, would leave the Unity faction if it backed the initiative (Vremya Novostei, Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 13).

The consensus among observers in the Russian media is that the no-confidence measure, which requires a simple majority of the Duma–226 deputies–will not pass, given that even if Unity were united on the issue, its eighty-four votes added to those of the KPRF and its allies, including the AgroIndustrial Group–some 130 votes–would fall just short of the required majority. In addition, a newspaper yesterday quoted “informed sources” in Unity’s leadership as saying that the party would announce today that it will not back the measure. On top of all this, the KPRF itself is not unanimously supporting the initiative: Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, a veteran KPRF member who has become an ally of President Vladimir Putin, today asked the Unity faction to drop the issue from the agenda. It was not clear why Seleznev directed his appeal to Unity and not to the KPRF. One fellow Duma member, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, however, noted that Unity’s aim in backing the measure was the Duma’s dissolution and that Seleznev “more than anyone is interested in preserving the [current] Duma” (NTV, March 13).

What is more, the KPRF appears likely to face serious punishment for initiating the no-confidence vote. Vladimir Averchenko, a Duma vice speaker and a leader of the pro-Putin People’s Deputy faction, said in an interview published today that if the KPRF and its allies continued to “undermine the situation,” the other factions would act to rob them of their Duma committee chairmanships (Kommersant, March 13). Early last year, Unity and its allies conspired with the KPRF and its allies to divvy up the Duma’s committee chairmanships among themselves, at the expense of other groups, including the Union of Right-Wing Forces, Yabloko and Fatherland-All Russia (see the Monitor, January 24, 2000). Besides retaining the Duma speaker’s post–which Seleznev holds–the KPRF and the AgroIndustrial Group chair eleven committees.

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has, characteristically, kept his distance from the controversy. Earlier this week, Seleznev, after meeting with him, quoted the president as saying that Unity’s apparent plans to back the no-confidence measure (which they have apparently subsequently backed away from) were a surprise to him and calling the measure “inopportune”–a view Seleznev said he shared (Russian agencies, March 11). Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced today that Putin had gone on vacation. The announcement was unexpected, and a newspaper noted that the head of state was also on vacation during two other controversies last year–the sinking of the Kursk submarine and the arrest of Media-Most chief Vladimir Gusinsky. Putin’s representative in the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov, however, accused the KPRF of behaving “destructively” in the lower house and said something should be done about it (Kommersant, March 13).

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note the view put forward by several observers, including the weekly magazine Profil, that the no-confidence drive was the brainchild, not of the KPRF, but of Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin. Citing an unnamed source in the presidential administration, the magazine reported that Kremlin officials had asked KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov to initiate the no-confidence measure, and that Voloshin’s aim was to protect his own faction–the group of Yeltsin-era insiders earlier known as the Family, of which Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is a key member. Voloshin’s group is reportedly locked in a power struggle with the other main Kremlin factions–the first being the “Chekists,” the group of KGB veterans which includes Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov and Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev; the other being the group of St. Petersburg economists that includes Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Trade and Economic Development Minister German Gref, both of whom were in the past associated with Anatoly Chubais. There have been rumors for more than a half a year that Putin would replace Kasyanov with either Ivanov, Kudrin or another Chubais ally–Sergei Stepashin, the former prime minister who today heads the Audit Chamber. In Profil’s view, Voloshin, by getting the KPRF to seek the ouster of the Kasyanov cabinet, ensured that Kasyanov would not be removed, because Putin could not allow himself to be seen as bowing to the KPRF’s demands. The magazine said that Voloshin’s strategy was also aimed at bringing Kasyanov, who has begun to act too independently, into line (Profil, March 12). As various observers have noted, Zyuganov’s motivation in initiating the no-confidence vote was apparently to throw a bone to the KPRF faithful, more and more of whom suspect, with some justification, that the party has abandoned its traditional position as part of the “irreconcilable” opposition and become a de facto member of the ruling elite.