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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rested Lawmakers Tackle 500 Bills

The corridors of the State Duma -- and the ritzy coffee shops on nearby Kamergersky Pereulok -- teemed with lawmakers and their staffers Monday, as parliament's lower house got back to work after its summer recess. They have more than 500 bills to wade through before the New Year.

The list of legislation, to be finalized at the Duma's opening plenary session Wednesday, covers reforms of everything from the nation's power grid to its language policy.

The most pressing of the bills, and one of the most hotly debated, promises to be the 2003 budget, a 5-kilogram document that has pitted the Kremlin, eager to promote economic growth and tighten the fiscal belt, against lawmakers clamoring for increased spending ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

"The budget will not get passed calmly," Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska was quoted by Interfax as saying. The first reading of the budget bill -- one of more than 100 identified as "top priority" -- has been slated tentatively for Sept. 25.

Another bitter battle will be fought out over the volatile issue of overhauling Russia's electricity market, which the government is trying to liberalize to attract investment and upgrade decrepit infrastructure. The complicated reform -- which aims to split up power monopoly Unified Energy Systems and threatens to lead to unpopular price hikes -- was supposed to be considered during this year's spring session but was shelved and handed over to a conciliation commission made up of legislators and government officials.

The head of the commission, Senator Mikhail Odintsov, speculated that the tortuous debate between the "conceptual" first reading this fall and the critical second reading could stretch on for two to three months.

Pavel Krasheninnikov, chairman of the Duma's legislative committee, said the biggest bone of contention would be the proposed transfer of some of the power system's "control functions" from the federal government to the regions.

"It is this paramount issue that will incite the main debates when the [reform] package is considered in the first reading," Krasheninnikov told Interfax on Monday.

Regional interests will also be at the center of debate late this month, when the Duma is set to consider a major reorganization of local self-government. The bill, now being finalized by a working group under Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the presidential administration who spearheaded the Kremlin's judicial reform, will lay the groundwork for a thornier struggle down the road: a redistribution of budget funds, taxes and other revenues among federal, regional and municipal coffers.

The deputies, who spent part of Monday learning to use a freshly installed electronic voting system, will also plow ahead with amendments to the Tax and Customs codes, as well as pension and railways reform. The Kremlin and Cabinet are expected to submit, respectively, the fourth part of the Civil Code, which focuses on intellectual property rights, and a draft Housing Code.

For temporary relief from such grandiose legislation, lawmakers will have some lighter fare on their plates this season, including two bills on the Russian language -- one banning the official use of alphabets other than cyrillic and another threatening to punish the tongue-tied and foul-mouthed.

Throughout the session, the specter of next year's parliamentary elections and the presidential race in 2004 promises to hover over the Duma. The chamber will debate, in a second reading, a bill on Duma elections, which looks to repartition existing electoral districts and received preliminary approval at the close of the spring session.

The Communists and other left-wing parties, such as Gennady Raikov's newly founded People's Party, have already been working to stir up public discontent over possible price hikes.

And while some deputies tried to downplay the session's "pre-election twist," Vyacheslav Volodin, a pro-Kremlin centrist, warned that it could hurt the Duma's work.

"We understand that next year is an election year," Volodin told Rossia television. "But if we fall into populism and pass decisions that are impossible to bring about, then the budget will come tumbling down and so will the [country's] stability."