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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Kicks Off New Year on a Populist Note

MTThe State Duma building on Okhotny Ryad will likely serve as the stage for pre-election jockeying between factions.
State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov on Wednesday called for priority to be given to the 2008-10 budget and anti-terrorism and anti-extremism measures, striking a populist tone as he welcomed deputies back for the first session of a year that will include new elections to the chamber.

Having spent most of last year making it more difficult for opposition parties to draw support ahead of the elections, scheduled for December, the pro-Kremlin deputies who control the Duma are likely to spend this year trying to outdo one another on who is more pro-presidential, analysts said.

In his address to convene the session, Gryzlov called on deputies to focus on passing the budget, which will be considered during the spring session this year for the first time ever. He said this was particularly vital because the draft, due to be submitted to the parliament by the end of April, will determine the budget for 2008 through 2010. Among other items Gryzlov cited in his address was the need to continue the legal battle against terrorism and extremism by passing measures calling for harsher punishment in their third readings.

Reading the agenda in the Duma, First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska said deputies would consider 45 of what she called "priority" bills during the spring session, of which nine were submitted by President Vladimir Putin and another 26 by the Cabinet. She said the Duma would consider 111 bills in January.

The national projects will draw the most attention in the run-up to the election, particularly from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party that dominates the current Duma, said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with the Indem think tank. "There will be a lot of populist activity on the part of United Russia to present plans for the national projects and huge social spending in the budget as its own gift to the people," he said.

The parliament voted Wednesday to invite First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is overseeing the implementation of the national projects, to deliver a progress report to the chamber on Jan. 24.

Addressing more immediate matters, Communist Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov was one of a number of opposition deputies who criticized the handling of relations with Minsk. The deputies accused Putin and his government, which had shut off the flow of oil across Belarus to Europe through the Druzhba pipeline, of backpedaling on promises to bring about a Russia-Belarus union.

"We failed our brother," Kharitonov said. "We are selling out Belarus."

He focused blame in particular on Gazprom, which he said had taken a "big brother" approach instead of trying to strengthen economic ties with Minsk.

A proposal by Sergei Baburin, a deputy speaker from the Rodina-People's Will faction, for joint parliamentary hearings on the situation with Belarus garnered only 117 of the 226 votes needed to pass.

In a move that already smacked of populism, deputies passed in a second reading an amendment to legislation that would strip deputies and their colleagues in the Federation Council of the right to carry special license plates on their cars. United Russia Deputy Vladimir Katrenko, who co-sponsored the bill, said it was designed to "create a level playing ground on Russia's roads between deputies and other Russians."

The legislation is unlikely to lead traffic police to pull senators over more often for driving violations, as their cars often enjoy police escorts.

A bill proposed by Communist Deputy Viktor Tyulkin to offer voters the option of selecting "These elections are not democratic" in the upcoming Duma elections received the support of only 93 deputies, Reuters reported.

Tyulkin, who said he never expected the measure to pass, said he introduced the bill because changes to election laws have made it "impossible" for poorer parties to compete against those with state backing.

Sergei Mikheyev, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said the spring session might bring some attempts at conciliation between factions. "The Kremlin still fears the rise of new street opposition groups," Mikheyev said. "This could even lead it to look for a dialogue with opposition groups already in the Duma."