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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Bill Gets Lashing In Duma

After three failed votes, hours of vitriol and a good deal of political arm-twisting, centrist and liberal lawmakers managed on Wednesday to push through a bill introducing restrictions on nationwide referendums.

In doing so, the Kremlin-backed majority in the State Duma slapped down Communist plans for holding a referendum on such sensitive issues as the sale of land and utility tariff hikes -- a plebiscite that threatened to spark public discontent in the runup to parliamentary elections in 2003 and presidential elections in 2004.

The new bill, which passed in a preliminary first reading, bans nationwide referendums within a year before presidential or parliamentary elections. The ban does not apply to a possible referendum on relations between Russia and Belarus. The legislation, which required a minimum of 300 votes, scraped by with a count of 304-133 after falling a few votes short in each of three earlier rounds of voting.

The bill's proponents criticized the Communists' planned referendum as "political manipulation" aimed at promoting a populist agenda ahead of elections.

Vyacheslav Volodin, head of the Fatherland-All Russia faction and one of the bill's authors, argued that it was dangerous to combine a referendum with an election campaign, warning that this would "skew the expression of citizens' will" and lead to a year of mudslinging and underhanded campaign tricks.

Volodin also raised the more practical argument that a referendum would be too costly -- 4 billion rubles ($126 million) that have not been figured into the budget for 2003, which promises to be a peak spending year.

The Communists and their allies from the Agrarian group, who unanimously opposed the bill, called it "immoral" to stop the public from voicing its opinion and to pass far-reaching legislation that had been tailored to deal with a particular situation.

Communists' Referendum Questions

(1) Do you agree that land sales should be banned in Russia with the exception of sales of land plots for personal use, gardens, dachas and garages?

(2) Do you agree that subsoil, forests, reservoirs and other natural resources, as well as railroads, fuel and energy facilities, defense enterprises and metallurgy enterprises important to Russia's national security should belong only to the government?

(3) Do you agree that salaries and pensions cannot be lower than a minimum subsistence level determined by a special law?

(4) Do you agree that the total cost of housing, electricity and other utilities must not exceed 10 percent of a family's total income?

"It is simply disgraceful to sit in the assembly hall when elementary norms and voters' rights are being violated," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov told reporters after the third round of voting, which fell three votes short of the necessary 300.

Alexander Kotenkov, the presidential representative in the Duma, said the Kremlin supported the bill and opposed the left-wing referendum.

Kotenkov, as well as a number of the bill's liberal proponents, criticized the four questions proposed by the Communists. (See box.)

Kotenkov, Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov and the deputy head of Yabloko, Sergei Ivanenko, argued that the Communists' questions were "irresponsible" and worded in a way that does not provide the opportunity for "direct legal consequences," such as changes to legislation.

However, Liberal Russia chairman Sergei Yushenkov, who opposed the bill, accused its supporters of misleading deputies by focusing on the Communists' specific questions, while backing fundamentally undemocratic legislation.

Boris Makarenko, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said he did not believe the referendum bill violated the spirit of democracy, but agreed that it was designed for too narrow a purpose.

"The flaw of this bill is that it was aimed ... against a specific political event, the Communist initiative to hold a referendum," Makarenko said Wednesday by telephone. "Some of those who opposed this bill essentially voted against the age-old Russian tradition of changing the long-term rules of the game for the sake of short-term political gain."

Wednesday's Duma vote was rife with scandalous accusations of slander and falsifications.

Zyuganov and other left-wing deputies said the Kremlin put immense pressure on deputies to support the bill.

One liberal deputy -- who voted in favor of the legislation although he was opposed to it -- also said there had been "pressure from above" to pass the bill.

The Communists claimed further foul play, saying that a number of proxies left by absent deputies were misused. Two of the faction's lawmakers said they had spoken by telephone to deputies who had not authorized anyone to vote on their behalf but were registered as backing the bill.

Communist Deputy Ivan Melnikov said the voting included so many violations that he plans to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

Makarenko said the struggle over the vote count indicated that, while the Kremlin has a firm hold on the Duma when a simple majority of 226 votes is required, it is harder for the executive branch to pull together a larger majority, such as the 300 votes necessary for passing a so-called Constitutional law or the two-thirds required to override a veto.