Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma's Strange Partners

The Communists and their fellow travelers have been quick to take firm control of the Duma, obtaining key positions in the legislature's swollen hierarchy. In return for "lending" their deputies to sympathetic groups like People's Power and the Agrarians so they could obtain faction status, the Communists gained the post of speaker and counted two vice speakers and 16 chairmen. Add to these three seats on the Duma Council and many more opportunities to address the audience, and you will have a full picture of the old party machine in resurgence.

Old habits die hard and the nomenklatura inclinations of the new masters of the game were starkly visible in the top-heavy bureaucracy that the new Duma has become. Every third member in it is some sort of a boss: The body has seven vice speakers, 30 chairmen and 120 deputy chairman with the inevitable coterie of innumerable assistants, speech writers, press officers and others.

The key battle, of course, was won over the speaker. This election confirmed the existence of old alliances inside the Duma and revealed some startling new ones. Any unbiased observer of the Russian political scene can attest to the fact that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party has been at least a tacit supporter of President Boris Yeltsin in the legislature over the past two years. So it was not at all surprising that Our Home Is Russia and the Liberal Democrats saw eye to eye on Ivan Rybkin as their candidate for speaker. What was a lot more intriguing this time was the emerging partnership between Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Communist head Gennady Zyuganov that became apparent in a controversial behind-the-scenes deal on the speaker's candidacy.

Had Yabloko thrown its support to Rybkin, he would have had 222 votes, just four votes short of the nomination. The next day Yabloko objected to allotting a vice speaker to the Communists and acted as if the faction had heard about it for the first time. But this was part of the "package deal" that Zyuganov and Yavlinsky had discussed at length for some 48 hours. It is hard to imagine that Yabloko which, quite possibly, has the highest IQ in the Duma, was simply duped. The explanation, perhaps, is more trivial: Yabloko got four chairmanships in return.

Later Yavlinsky was at pains to dissociate himself from an awkward, if momentary, friendship with Zyuganov. But the bitter aftertaste for many of his followers is still there.

Gennady Seleznyov's election as speaker showed the Communists' enviable command of the art of insider trading, arm-twisting and cajoling, which left the rest of the Duma looking amateurish at best. Zyuganov was pushing Seleznyov not only as a more acceptable figure to other factions but also as a battering ram against traditionalists in his own faction. Another reason was that Seleznyov would not even remotely jeopardize Zyuganov's chances of winning in June by taking stands impossible for the president to digest. Were it not for the close elections, Seleznyov would have started on Rybkin's road to compromise with the Kremlin from the start.

Once Seleznyov was installed in the speaker's chair all else seemed almost secondary. Zyuganov's faction even allowed itself the luxury of being magnanimous when it came to sharing the chairmanships with its opponents. They pointedly offered to them several important committees like privatization, defense, budget and international affairs. For there is not enough time or leverage to make a difference prior to the presidential elections. If there were, it would make no sense at all for the opposition to share responsibility for whatever the government is doing in these important spheres.

Indeed, it seems that the dominant faction in the Duma intends to spend the next five months not confronting the irascible Yeltsin but quietly turning the Duma into a vehicle for electing Zyuganov. With all its organization, money and media attention, the legislature is effectively becoming Zyuganov's presidential headquarters.

It is a safe bet to assume that none of the burning issues now facing the country will be seriously tackled by the Duma before the June 16 elections. Its handling of the Chechnya crisis showed it full well. The Pervomaiskoye tragedy got only a perfunctory hearing at a plenary as the deputies were busy cutting up the Duma power base. The coal miners beating their helmets in front of the White House got no response so far from the legislators.

So the strategy seems to be to allow Yeltsin to flounder on his own.

That is why there are absolutely no noises among the Communists on the issues that were paramount to them just a few short months ago, like vote of no confidence in the government or impeachment procedures against the president that, incidentally, had been organized by Seleznyov.

The Duma will be undertaking some populist initiatives like jacking up minimum wages to inconvenience the president. Yeltsin will reciprocate with raising stipends to the students by the same amount.

The president with his impressive instinct for power intrigue keeps all his options. He tries to preempt his opponents by sounding more nationalistic, by firing such unpopular figures like Andrei Kozyrev and Anatoly Chubais and by moving to the left on social issues.

We may yet see the most weird maneuvering turning hitherto unthinkable scenarios into reality. The Communist leadership of the Duma and the president may finally recall that they come from the same communist roots. A truce between them or even some kind of political marriage are not unimaginable. Politics has seen no less strange bedfellows.

In fact, were the presidential vote to come not five but, say, 15 months from now, that new alliance would have been almost certain. It is not altogether impossible even at this juncture.

Victor Linnik is former editor of Pravda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.