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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Council's First Query: 'Why Are We Here?'

President Boris Yeltsin's all-new Political Consultative Council, already dubbed Russia's "shadow parliament," met for the first time Thursday, but members expressed confusion over why they had gathered and what their tasks would be.

The council, headed by ex-State Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin and created by presidential decree, brought together representatives of major and minor political parties, with the key exceptions of the Communist Party and the Yabloko movement.

According to Rybkin, the Kremlin and government will pass all bills headed for parliament through the Consultative Council for comment, although it enjoys no constitutional powers.

Rybkin said Yeltsin had also asked the council to consider the need for a nationwide referendum on the government's handling of social welfare matters -- a demand put forward by trade unions who have gathered 3 million signatures of support.

The president will look to the council to provide a "cross-section" of public opinion in Russia, because it will include representatives of dozens of parties that are not well represented in the Duma.

The Duma, elected last December, is made up half of candidates who ran from single districts, and half of the four parties -- Yabloko, the Communists, Our Home Is Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- who won more than 5 percent of the national vote and divided seats up proportionally.

None of the other 39 parties on the December ballot passed that 5 percent threshold. Rybkin called that aspect of the elections law a "defect that has resulted in the mood of half of the voters not being represented in the Duma."

Hence the Consultative Council, which Izvestia has already dubbed a "shadow parliament" -- a pun at the expense of the Communists' plan to firm up their credentials as a loyal opposition party by forming a shadow cabinet. Rybkin calls it a "pre-parliament."

Another backer of the council and loser in December's Duma race, Sergei Shakhrai of the Party of Russian Unity and Accord, told Interfax he hopes the council would create a "true multi-party system" as opposed to the "pseudo multi-party system" found in the Duma.

Parties that have Duma factions can send three representatives to the council. Parties that did not make the 5 percent cut can send two. Other organizations, if approved by the council, can send one.

The legitimacy of the council's claims to represent all walks of Russian political life will only be valid if the Communists and Yabloko sign on, something they are still considering.

The Communists have complained that the council is an effort by Yeltsin to erode the authority of the Duma, where the Communists and their allies form a commanding bloc. Efforts to unite all of the Duma's non-communist forces into a counterweight coalition have so far come to nothing.

"To create a structure that intends to compete with the Duma is in my point of view not only incorrect, it could aggravate political tensions further," said Anatoly Lukyanov, a top Communist.

For now, the council provides a rare forum where marginal groups like the Beer Lover's Party or the Kedr ecological movement can stand and be heard -- at least in theory.

In practice, Rybkin runs the show. After deciding the council would be split into 12 working groups, dubbed "chambers," on issues ranging from defense to culture, Rybkin read off a single nominee for the chairmanship of every group.

When other candidates were nominated, Rybkin made them "deputy chairmen."

"Why are we here?" asked Andrei Golovin, a delegate from the Stanislav Govorukhin bloc. "I don't see any discussion, for example. All is decided beforehand. What is our purpose?"

"To me [the new Consultative Council] is not even interesting," said Alexander Konovalov of the USA/Canada Institute.

"It's just a tool to take care of Ivan Rybkin, who the president owes some debts. It's an expression of gratitude, nothing more. Maybe they will try to compete with the Duma, but I doubt it will work," he added.