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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Ends Session With an Eye on Elections

MTA view of the State Duma building on Sunday. Deputies approved a total of 144 bills during the spring session.
After approving a bill on extremist activity that critics say will help stifle the opposition ahead of national elections, State Duma deputies adjourned Saturday for summer vacation.

The final bill can be seen as a fitting conclusion to a spring session dominated by legislation that promises to help United Russia in next year's Duma elections and to secure a smooth handover of power to President Vladimir Putin's designated successor in 2008.

In all, deputies approved 144 bills during the spring session, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said Saturday. The session had been scheduled to end Friday, but it was extended by one day to allow deputies to vote on 52 bills in various readings. Of those bills, eight were approved in final readings, including the one on extremism.

United Russia, which has 310 of the Duma's 450 seats, rejected a proposal by Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent deputy, to delay the third reading of the bill on extremism until the fall and voted down dozens of revisions suggested by Communist deputies.

United Russia said the bill would help fight racist groups and increased attacks against dark-skinned foreigners and religious groups.

Opponents said that the existing law provided no definition of the word "extremist" and that the bill would help the Kremlin clear the field of unwanted candidates ahead of the Duma and presidential elections.

"You can put anything under the understanding of extremism, even different points of view," Ryzhkov said.

The bill would bar from elections not only candidates deemed extremist, but their parties, too.

Central Elections Commission head Alexander Veshnyakov called the bill undemocratic on Saturday and urged the deputies to vote against it.

"An entire party cannot be held responsible for one of its members. A party should be punished only if you find indications of extremism in its documents," he said.

"Democratic countries don't have such bills," he added.

The bill still needs to be approved by the Federation Council before Putin can sign it into law. It is expected to come into effect by Jan. 1.

Oleg Kovalyov, chairman of the Duma Management Committee and a United Russia deputy, said he was pleased with the Duma's work this spring. "It was a very intense session, during which we were able to approve bills that were very important for our country," he said.

Gennady Raikov, chairman of the Credentials and Ethics Commission, said United Russia's efforts had "borne fruit."

But the opposition complained that the pro-Kremlin majority had not given it any say.

"The Duma is working like in Soviet times, when we had a single party that made all the decisions," Rodina Deputy Boris Vinogradov said.

Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin called United Russia the Kremlin's puppet. "The Kremlin asks and United Russia does," he said.

Deputies were indeed busy this spring, and many of their bills were aimed at helping the Kremlin hold on to power after the upcoming elections, said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Gorbachev Fund.

"The Duma has worked with the next elections in mind. ... Most of the legislative process was aimed at limiting the power of the opposition," he said.

Particularly restrictive, Ryabov and other analysts said, were the bill on extremism, a bill that removed the "against all" option from the national ballot, and legislation that barred deputies from switching parties and parties from including candidates from other political groups on their party lists.

Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator think tank, said he did not consider there to have been any independent initiatives in the Duma this spring. "The Duma behaved the way it was asked to behave," he said. "The Kremlin gave orders, and the deputies fulfilled them. All the bills they approved came from the Kremlin."

Oreshkin said the opposition had been more reserved, noting that when they had voted against bills, they had done so quietly. "Rodina tried to raise its voice, and it was punished with a change of leadership. The Communists are behaving cautiously. They know that if they behave differently, they are not going to get any votes in the next elections," he said.

Raikov complained that the main problem during the spring session was absenteeism. "Some deputies did not attend the sessions, but we have no laws to punish them. We are thinking about this issue," he said.

Kovalyov said deputies could not be blamed for missing some sessions because many worked hard on Duma committees and only attended sessions when their bills were considered. "But we are fighting to make them come all the time," he said.

Deputies will spend this week in their regions and then have two months of vacation. They reconvene for the fall session on Sept. 3.