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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Upper Chamber Faces Fateful Choice

The Federation Council on Thursday failed to come to grips with the law that will determine how their institution is formed in the future -- by election or appointment -- a choice that speaker Vladimir Shumeiko has called "a clash between democracy and federalism."

It is, by all accounts, a vital distinction that will decide whether the parliament loses part of its already limited power to the Kremlin. For if the Federation Council has often been overshadowed by the more flamboyant State Duma, its role of approving laws passed by the lower chamber is critical.

As the Duma's Legislation Committee chairman Vladimir Isakov once put it, the Duma is parliament's engine and the Federation Council is its brakes.

On Friday, the chamber is to try again to tackle the question of who will control the brakes by voting on a bill passed early this month by the Duma, according to which Federation Council deputies are to be popularly elected in their regions. That, in Shumeiko's dilemma, is the "democracy" option.

Thursday's debate indicated that most deputies in the upper house would like the Federation Council to be elected, as it was in December 1993. They believe the legislature would not survive the blow if the upper house were to include presidential appointees.

"It's an attempt to totally suppress the legislative branch," said deputy Vasily Starodubtsev. Like most current council deputies, he is neither a governor nor a local legislature chief, and appointment of future Federation Council members would cut off his and most others' chances of being elected again.

In general, an upper chamber filled by popularly elected deputies is expected to be more independent of the president and to take positions based on considerations of nationwide politics, and not just on the interests of their particular regions. And if the reason for Thursday's failure to tackle the Duma's draft law -- lack of a quorum -- is anything to go by, there is good reason to fear absentee politics.

Proponents of elections find ample support in the Russian Constitution, citing the principle of division of powers which they say the appointment of governors to parliament would violate. In addition, the constitution says that only the first intake of the Federation Council can be semi-professional: subsequently, all deputies must work in the chamber on a permanent basis, which would be impossible if local officials got in.

The federalists in the debate -- among them Shumeiko and Rybkin -- say that appointing local chiefs to the council would not violate democratric principles, because they have already been elected, and would ensure better representation for the regions.

In a recent interview, Rybkin said that heads of local legislatures have already been elected in 88 of the 89 Russian regions, as have some 22 governors. Ultimately, all of the governors will have been elected, and even today there are enough elected deputies in the chamber to make up a quorum.

"A local legislature chairman has gone through elections twice: first to the legislature and then deputies elected him chairman," Rybkin said. "Now some overzealous people want to make him go through a third election, and that smacks of sadism."

It seems that a number of Federation Council deputies are prepared to embrace this view, provided that none of the 60-plus governors appointed by Yeltsin join the council.

But whether or not the council makes a decision Friday, Yeltsin is thought likely to step in and set his own rules. Kurochkin quoted Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, as saying during a recent meeting that the president will veto the bill proposed by the Duma under any circumstances. Filatov also told the deputies to reject the bill, or "the president will be forced to form the chamber by decree."

The most conservative members of the Federation Council have openly said that no law at all would be the best option for Yeltsin, since it would perpetuate the current state of affairs, in which most governors fall into line with his policies.

"The president will never agree to elections -- he will sign a decree and form the Federation Council in his own way," said Aman Tuleyev, a Kemerovo deputy and long-standing Yeltsin critic.