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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Political Bills Win Far Less Praise

In contrast to the economic legislation passed in the State Duma's spring session, the political and social legislation gave deputies less reason to crow as they headed out for the summer Monday.

The most notable bills, all controversial, were those to fight political extremism, allow a limited alternative service to the military draft and make it more difficult to become a Russian citizen.

Praise for the spring's accomplishments was pointedly mute, even from Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov. "A number of economic projects allowed us to take steps forward," he said. "But on the other hand, there was a consolidation of bureaucratic tendencies."

The initiative for only about half of the nearly 100 bills passed came from the Duma itself; the other bills were put forward by the government and the Kremlin, whose domination of the legislative branch has strengthened this year.

"If the president initiates a project himself or if he backs the government, the legislation is sure to pass the Duma," said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank. "Deputies only speak up if they see the authorities unconsolidated on certain positions."

Led by the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, the Duma's centrists -- who hold roughly 240 seats in the 450-seat house -- largely controlled the proceedings.

They further formalized their control by depriving the Communist Party -- which holds the most seats in the Duma -- of eight of its 10 committee chairmanships. The Communists gave up the last two in protest.

United Russia leaders were predictably happy with the spring session in general. "It was the first time in which three centrist groups worked together to represent one party," said Vyacheslav Reznik -- a member of United Russia's general council, which coordinates the activities of the Unity, Fatherland-All Russia and People's Deputy Duma factions. "Our close cooperation with the government allows us to follow the president's course."

Deputies passed the bill on alternative service in the final reading only on Friday. Although it will finally bring the law in line with the 1993 Constitution, which guaranteed the right to alternative service, liberal lawmakers say the government-backed bill is too severe. If a man of conscript age succeeds in convincing a special committee that he is a pacifist, he must perform 3 1/2 years of alternative service, or 21 months if he has higher education. The maximum compulsory military service is two years.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the social-democratic Yabloko party, called it "alternative slavery" at a news conference Thursday.

Markov said the bill will allow the military to say it provides alternative service, while in reality changing very little. "It's good for the military bureaucracy," he said.

Pribylovsky said conservative groups talked President Vladimir Putin into going along with a tougher version of the legislation. "Putin likes to be seen as a Gorbachev in the West, but he also likes his high ratings at home and thus has to show some support for the generals," the analyst said.

On Thursday, the deputies gave final approval to the bill on combating political extremism. The legislation was pushed through by the centrists over the objections of liberals and Communists, who say its vague provisions could lead to a clampdown on any group targeted by the authorities.

In April, the Duma passed a presidential bill establishing new procedures for seeking Russian citizenship. Applicants for citizenship must prove they have lived in Russia for five years and pass a language exam.

Opponents said the law would not only make an already bureaucratized process more difficult, but also disenfranchise millions of former Soviet citizens.

Yavlinsky harshly criticized the citizenship and alternative service bills. "They're tied to what's happening in the whole country," he said. "A series of decisions are being made that are exclusively counterproductive for the country's future."

In a meeting Monday with leaders of the Duma factions, Putin focused his praise on the economic legislation, although he listed the bills on extremism and citizenship among the most important of the session.

Whether or not they approved of the Duma's work, deputies on the whole saw an entrenchment of parliament's new role under Putin's administration.

Sergei Yushenkov, co-leader of the Liberal Russia party, said he was far from satisfied by the spring session. "Too much time was spent talking," he said. "But in no sphere was a single real reform carried out."

Yushenkov particularly criticized the Duma's rejection of a Liberal Russia initiative to reduce the influence of the state in business. "Meanwhile, the building of a police state goes on," he said. "The Duma is an affiliate of the government. It's a far cry from the liberalism the president likes to talk about."

While praising Putin's foreign policy, Yavlinsky came down on the Duma for failing to discuss foreign policy issues. "The Duma has become helpless," he said. "It's bereft of strategies."

Fellow Yabloko member Sergei Ivanov agreed. "The Duma has turned into a voting machine," he said. "It cannot make decisions by itself."

Irina Khakamada, co-leader of the Union of Right Forces, which has shown strong support for Putin, said the spring session's results were "not too bad." She praised legal and economic reforms but criticized the alternative service bill.

Khakamada also criticized the government's practice of introducing major bills late in the session, saying the rush to review the legislation caused mistakes. "The first bills to be considered are usually the Duma's, and they fall apart," she said. "Most laws that pass are the ones the president wants."

Reznik also said the government drags its feet. "It's always late presenting economic projects," he said. "It's also strangely passive about reforming the civil service."