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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Premier Defends Budget in Duma

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin went to the State Duma to defend the Kremlin's economic program Wednesday, receiving a raucous reception from deputies who blasted the 1998 budget and repeated threats of a no-confidence vote in the government.


Their bark appeared to be worse than their bite, however. Underscoring their overall weakness relative to the presidency, they put off the no-confidence vote and instead launched into a classic Duma display of name-calling and rhetoric.


As Chernomyrdin and most of his Cabinet looked on from the government box, Duma leaders made it clear they had no intention of voting for the draft budget when it comes up for discussion Thursday. Deputies also approved a nonbinding resolution declaring the Cabinet's performance for this year as "unsatisfactory."


Chernomyrdin was in parliament's lower house to report on the implementation of this year's budget and cajole deputies into passing the government's proposed austere spending plan for 1998.


The Kremlin and many Western observers have praised the document as the first responsible Russian budget since the collapse of communist rule, but the Communist-led Duma was having none of the belt-tightening. The hearing was more like vaudeville theater than a parliamentary session, with lawmakers and ministers shouting insults and erupting in derisive laughter.


A principal source of mirth was the usually dour prime minister himself, whose notoriously obtuse speaking style had his own ministers struggling to stifle giggles.


In one exchange he warned deputies who were considering voting no-confidence in the government: "If anyone's hands are itching, let him scratch somewhere else." Later, he reassured deputies that Russia will not resort to food imports to solve its agricultural problems. "We will not be buying bread, particularly not from any mad cows," he said


Ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky launched into a wide-ranging tirade on prostitution, hermaphrodites, a foreign plot to force Russia to its knees and his own drinking habits -- everything but his faction's stance on the budget.


The government has made approval of the budget a key priority and a test of strength between the Kremlin and parliament. In an unprecedented move, Chernomyrdin earlier this week dispatched most of his Cabinet to lobby privately with Duma factions.


Backed by First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, Chernomyrdin appealed to lawmakers not to reject the budget outright. He said he was prepared to compromise in some areas, including subsidies to the regions, cash to ship supplies to Russia's Far North and the Road Fund, a notorious pork barrel.


"Either we help each other to move forward or we fall out with each other and end up in another historic dead end," Chernomyrdin told legislators.


Despite his entreaty, the Communist faction and their allies warned the government to withdraw the budget or face having it rejected. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called the budget an extension of shock therapy that he says is ruining Russia.


"We tried to make a big leap and catch up with the U.S.A, but we landed either in Columbia or Chile and Chechnya ended up in Afghanistan," he said.


Nevertheless, there were signs that the Communists were easing away from their threat to vote no-confidence in the government. If they were to do so twice within three months, President Boris Yeltsin would have to dissolve the Duma and call new parliamentary elections -- an uncomfortable prospect for many deputies.


The Communist faction initiated no-confidence proceedings Tuesday by submitting the 90 signatures necessary to get the vote put on the Duma's agenda. Though it is a serious step, deputies in the past have preferred to avoid carrying such showdowns too far.


The motion could have been put to a vote this week, but Gennady Seleznyov, a Communist deputy who is the Duma speaker, said the presidium will wait until next Tuesday to decide when to take up the measure. He vaguely suggested next Wednesday or Thursday as possibilities.


Communist deputies cited unspecified Duma regulations, and not cold feet, for the delay. "We want to do everything according to the constitution, without extremism and without violations," said Communist Alexander Kuvayev.


Liberal Grigory Yavlinsky said the Communists and their allies had no serious intention of voting no confidence, but were using the threat to wring budget concessions from the budget.


Yavlinsky's small liberal Yabloko bloc, which also opposes the budget, wanted an immediate vote on the no-confidence motion.


The Communists are a "cowardly, horse-trading opposition which is always trying to begin a dialogue [with the government] but in such a way that no one knows what they are doing," Yavlinsky said.


By just initiating the no-confidence procedure, Zyuganov may have achieved his objective. With President Boris Yeltsin more and more aggressive in his relations with the Duma in recent weeks, there was a danger that he would insist the lower house vote on a motion of confidence in the government. If the Duma refused, the president could dissolve it within seven days.


Under Duma rules, deputies do not have to consider a confidence vote proposed by the president if they have their own no-confidence vote already under way.