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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fradkov Takes a Beating in the Duma

APFradkov listening to debate in the Duma on Wednesday. He survived a vote of no confidence, though many deputies did not vote.
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov survived a no-confidence vote in the State Duma on Wednesday, but came in for sustained heckling from opposition deputies over the government's controversial benefits reform, which has prompted protests across the country.

The motion, called by Communist, Rodina and independent deputies, mustered just 112 votes -- well short of a simple majority of 226 -- but most United Russia deputies opted to defeat the motion by simply sitting on their hands.

With just 20 votes against and four abstentions, most United Russia deputies chose not to vote at all in an apparent attempt to distance themselves from unpopular government measures, including the benefits law they rubber-stamped last summer.

Under the law, about 40 million pensioners and other socially vulnerable individuals have had longstanding benefits revoked and replaced with meager cash payments.

A visibly nervous Fradkov plowed through a cautious defense of his government's economic record, but apologized for what he admitted was a "clumsy" implementation of the benefits reform.

"The government takes complete responsibility for the organization and conduct of this reform. I personally, as head of the government, do not escape responsibility," he said. "To begin such a grandiose reform, we should have calculated every possible detail and weighed all risks and consequences."

Awkward and rambling at times, Fradkov's speech was interrupted on several occasions by laughter and mocking applause.

At one point an opposition deputy called out, "Look, he just woke up!"

In reply, Fradkov appeared to deviate from his prepared text, saying, "... It's not that. I am old enough to have observed everything, having worked in various places. ... We should not just talk the talk, but walk the walk."

After another barracking, Fradkov paused, then said: "I have gained the strength to carry on."

Fradkov also faced the humiliation of being cut short as he replied to questions from deputies, with Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov switching off the microphone when Fradkov had exceeded his allotted time.

In his answers to deputies, Fradkov asked for six months to improve the situation with subsidized medicines, and said the government would seek to double average wages by 2008. United Russia spokesman Oleg Morozov demanded he fix the subsidies within two months.

In an effort to save face over his party's support for the monetization of benefits, Morozov pledged that his faction would not support any "ill-thought- out" governmental initiatives in the future, adding that the Cabinet's mistakes had hurt President Vladimir Putin's popularity.

"Against the backdrop of a favorable economic situation, the social tension in the country is higher than ever," Morozov said.

The outcome of the no-confidence vote was widely predicted and even the Communists, who initiated the vote Monday, said they knew it would not gain a majority.

The law allows President Vladimir Putin to ignore a first no-confidence vote, but not a second. Such a vote would require Putin either to fire the government or dissolve the Duma and call new elections.

Political analysts speculated that the vote was allowed to go ahead as a way for the Duma to let off steam and give the impression of real political activity in the Kremlin-dominated chamber.

Tens of thousands of angry pensioners across the country took to the streets last month, demanding the return of a range of benefits including discounts on utility bills and free rides on public transportation. To smooth the impact of the reform, the government rushed to allocate some $4 billion in extra subsidies to the regions and to raise pensions. By the end of January, the wave of protests had slowly subsided.

Proponents of the no-confidence vote criticized the Fradkov Cabinet's entire economic policy and its failure to boost economic growth and raise living standards.

"The Cabinet failed in all directions and must resign, so that the people can see whether someone is bearing responsibility for what is going on or not," said independent Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the initiators of the vote.

Ahead of the session, some some top United Russia officials had promised a rough ride for Fradkov when he turned up at the Duma.

As well as grilling Fradkov, deputies also attacked the three most prominent liberal ministers in the Cabinet -- Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin -- who have come in for particular criticism over the benefits reform.

Deputies also scolded Fradkov for allowing ministers to go on vacation during the New Year's holidays, saying that they should have been preparing the reform instead of being at seaside resorts.

Itar-Tass / AP

Fradkov shaking hands with Putin in the Kremlin after the Duma debate Wednesday.

Commenting on the outcome of the no-confidence vote, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said that he expected it to go that way.

"Almost no one from United Russia voted. It means that they are all hostages of this government and this regime," Zyuganov told reporters after the vote. His party is organizing nationwide protests against the benefits reform Saturday.

While some commentators characterized the session as a mixture of staged political theater and high farce, analysts said that the no-confidence vote was at least a refreshing change for the Duma, which since its election in December 2003 has become a virtual branch of the presidential administration, with a reputation for uncritically rubber-stamping Kremlin-sponsored bills.

The debate even had black humor, supplied by ultranationalist LDPR leader and inveterate Duma clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He called for Fradkov, his liberal ministers and Zyuganov to all commit suicide at Zurabov's dacha, and promised to join them. He suggested carbon monoxide.