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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civic Activists Learn Duma Game

Half a year after the Kremlin-sponsored Civic Forum laid down the guidelines for a dialogue between state and civic organizations, civic activists say they understand all too well their limited role in the law-making process. But they are learning how to play the game.

The rules, they say, are simple: If the Kremlin is indifferent about a bill, activists can influence its contents. If the Kremlin backs a bill, they can influence it if their suggestions toe the Kremlin line. If the Kremlin draws up a bill it considers vital, they cannot influence it. And if State Duma deputies don't know where the Kremlin stands, they can stir up a public storm and then influence it.

Civic organizations look to the Kremlin to decide which legislation to put their energy into, said Lev Levinson, an expert from the nongovernmental Institute of Human Rights and a consultant on the Duma's legislation committee.

"We watch which way the wind is blowing from the Kremlin, and if it coincides with our plans, we use it," he said at a news conference late last week.

"We develop and expand the executive branch's liberal initiatives and then send them over to the lawmakers."

Levinson said this policy sometimes makes for strange bedfellows.

For example, he said, a group of liberal deputies recently found themselves siding with the pro-Kremlin People's Deputy faction on draft legislation to reduce penalties for drug possession.

At the same time, those liberal deputies were blasting People's Deputy for backing bills in support of the death penalty and the recriminalization of homosexuality.

"The Duma votes under direct orders from Kremlin or tries to guess the Kremlin's stance over the issue," said Yury Dzhibladze, head of the nongovernmental Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights.

"We try to publicize this guessing process, and only then can we influence the deputies."

A recent example took place with controversial legislation on alternative military service, he said. The Kremlin's stance was unclear, but the army wanted a bill that made military service more attractive than alternative service.

Civic activists went to the media, which then provided widespread coverage about the army's tough stance. As a result, a conciliatory commission was set up to take into account the suggestions of the military, the Labor Ministry and civic groups, Dzhibladze said.

The compromise bill is expected to go to the Duma for a second reading next week.

"The generals failed in the commission to ruin the portion of the bill that secures rights for those who opt for alternative service," Dzhibladze said. "If there had been no public dialogue before the meeting, the generals would have beaten us easily."

A good way to figure out whether the Kremlin is open to compromise is to see which Duma committee it sends a bill to, Levinson said.

"If the government had not wanted a liberal law, they wouldn't have sent the bill on alternative service to the legislation committee headed by [liberal lawmaker] Pavel Krasheninnikov," he said.

"They would have sent it to the defense committee, which wouldn't have let us near it."

But it is impossible to make any substantial changes to bills that reflect the Kremlin's main political and economical agenda, said Valentin Gefter, the head of the Institute of Human Rights.

"A couple of insubstantial amendments is the maximum that we can do," he said.

According to Levinson, examples of such legislation include the bill on extremism, which is to be considered in first reading in June, the bill on citizenship, which was approved in final reading in April, and budget and tax bills.

Another sensitive area in which the Kremlin refuses to let other people weigh in is electoral law, according to Levinson.

"It is understandable why -- the country is ruled through elections," he said.

Officials from the presidential administration scurry between the lawmakers in the Duma's main hall on the days parliament votes on such bills, said Lev Moskovkin, a journalist who covers the Duma for the Moskovskaya Pravda newspaper.

"We all understand what they are doing, and repeated attempts by Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov to shoo them away have no effect at all," he said.