President Boris Yeltsin on December 5 made a surprise visit to the Russian Duma and successfully appealed to it to accept the 1998 federal budget in the first of four statutory readings. (RTR, December 7) In the past, Yeltsin has resolutely refused to address the Duma. On the eve of his surprise intervention, the Communist-dominated Duma had declared its intention of rejecting the budget, or of accepting it only in return for a government reshuffle that Yeltsin had indicated would not be forthcoming. Following Yeltsin’s appeal, the Duma voted 231 in favor to 136 against with six abstentions.
Three new factors appear to have influenced the outcome. First, Russia’s constitutionally weak parliament, despised by government and population alike, may at last be beginning to acquire a little authority. Yeltsin’s visit to the lower house was not entirely unprecedented: he visited the Duma a few weeks ago to congratulate Speaker Gennady Seleznev on his 50th birthday, and he telephoned the speaker several times last month in an ultimately successful bid to persuade the Duma to abandon a threatened vote of no confidence in the government. Moreover, Yeltsin’s latest visit comes on the eve of the second meeting of the "Big Four" (the president, the prime minister, and the speakers of the two houses of parliament) set for tomorrow (December 9), and the first meeting of a roundtable including opposition and trade union leaders scheduled for Thursday, December 11.
Second, the December 5 vote confirmed the increasing clout of Russia’s regions. The Duma heeded Yeltsin’s appeal partly because Yeltsin told it that a vote against could provoke a collapse of the ruble. But it also gave in because a number of Russia’s regional leaders had appealed to their members of parliament to approve the budget. Bowing to this pressure, the Communist faction allowed a free vote of its members. Explaining his party’s policy reversal, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said the absence of an agreed budget "would have spelled the disintegration of the economy for many regions. The governors of many depressed regions asked their members to vote for their budget because their finances were falling apart." (Itar-Tass, December 5)
Zyuganov’s statement suggests that a significant number of the 29 Communists who voted for the budget may have been deputies elected from single-member constituencies rather than on the party’s national list. This would be in keeping with a third new trend — the move toward the de-polarization of Russian politics. The presidential administration has made it clear that it favors amending the electoral law to abolish party-list voting in favor of a system in which all deputies would be elected in single-member constituencies. The fact that pro-government newspapers such as Izvestia has begun to publish readers’ letters calling for just such a change is a sure sign that such a reform is on the cards.
Taken together, these new factors offer hope of stability. A stronger parliament will be in Russia’s long-term interest as long as it is accountable in a way that the old Supreme Soviet, firebombed out of existence by Yeltsin in October 1993, was not.
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