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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parliament's Lean Machine: The Envy of the President

Asked six months ago what was parliament's biggest disadvantage in its power struggle with Boris Yeltsin, one influential deputy said it was the unwieldy and fractious nature of the legislature faced with the president's lean and unified team.


Things have changed. As Yeltsin heads into an "autumn battle" with parliament he says will decide the fate of Russia, his camp is racked by internal dissention and a corruption scandal that has implicated many of his top aides.


Parliament, on the other hand, has gradually transformed itself into the lean machine for which Andrei Golovin, leader of the anti-Yeltsin Smena faction, had envied the president last February.


Today the parliament is dominated by a handful of men capable of ramming through decisions that six months ago would have been unthinkable.


These are parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, his deputies, Yury Voronin and Valentin Agafonov, together with leaders of the Russian Unity coalition of communists that has a decisive majority in parliament.


In part they have been helped by Yeltsin, who has hired sympathetic deputies into the executive branch, thus weakening his support in parliament.


Khasbulatov has seized the chance to purge his opponents. At the speaker's urging, lawmakers Friday are scheduled to hear a report of the committee on defense and security, a step towards removing its chairman, Sergei Stepashin.


Stepashin is one of ten leading legislators who signed a statement in June supporting Yeltsin's efforts at constitutional reform. Already, three have lost their posts, while deputy speaker Nikolai Ryabov has been stripped of his duties.


With the major obstacles out of the way, Khasbulatov has been freed to make effective use of his strongest weapon against Yeltsin, Russia's Soviet-era constitution.


"Parliament has to work in conditions close to combat", Khasbulatov said recently of the conflict with the president. "Its only defenses are the law and the constitution".


The legislature enjoys the constitutional authority to approve any changes to Russia's power structure, and has used this to block Yeltsin's efforts to force early parliamentary elections and to adopt a new constitution.


The only way for Yeltsin to break the deadlock would be to break the law.


As Yeltsin's efforts to muster approval for his new constitution faltered in July, parliament went on the offensive, passing measures to double the budget deficit, cancel a Yeltsin decree aimed at accelerating privatization, and take control of the broadcast media.


All Yeltsin can do to oppose these moves by the legislature is ignore them. His veto can be overridden by a simple majority vote, after which he is obliged to sign the law.


In late July, parliament also made it easier to pass laws by lowering the quorum of lawmakers required from 75 to 50 percent the parliament's 248 members. Anti-Yeltsin forces in parliament can easily muster 124 votes.


Even when they cannot, lawmakers have found a way to get measures adopted by using the voting cards of absent colleagues. During one vote, the secretary of a deputy was seen voting ten times.


Yury Nesterov, a legislator who usually supports Yeltsin, said this practice was neither approved nor forbidden in the laws on parliament.