The Russian parliament opened its autumn session Wednesday with a discussion on the stand the country should take in light of the rapidly changing international situation following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
As much as anything, the discussion was a nod to the complex situation Russia, and indeed the world, finds itself in, and the atmosphere of the debate reflected the view that the best thing the Duma can do now is not get in the president’s way.
"Ultimately, all our statements and discussions don’t make any difference now," said Sergei Ivanenko, deputy leader of the Yabloko Duma faction, in relation to the international situation. "This is a time when the president and government must make decisions."
A discussion behind closed doors with representatives of the security ministries and deputies was initially supposed to examine a program of anti-terrorist measures. But in the end, discussion was limited to a draft resolution on the tense international situation. Many deputies say this part of the meeting could have been public, particularly because some heads of security ministries sent little-known officials in place of themselves, and the FSB sent its spokesman Alexander Zdanovich.
But the typically sensitive Duma deputies accepted even this calmly, conceding that the security ministers had more urgent priorities at the moment.
"[Presidential Representative Alexander] Kotenkov explained quite reasonably that since the Duma only decided yesterday to discuss anti-terrorist measures, the security ministers simply didn’t have the time to prepare," said Vladimir Lysenko, an independent democratic deputy. "In any case, they have more urgent business at the moment."
As to the position the Duma should take regarding events since Sept. 11, most deputies came to a common view. This consensus relates above all to the possibility of military operations in Afghanistan, which raises real problems for Russia because it could trigger floods of refugees, drugs and arms into the country through Tajikistan.
"If something does begin [in Afghanistan], this will be a humanitarian catastrophe," Lysenko said.
Most deputies also said that Russia shouldn’t become involved in any conflict itself, both for foreign- and domestic-policy reasons. "If we do take part in these operations, we will lose all our positions in the East," Lysenko said.
"As a country with around 40 million Muslims, with whom we’ve been living for centuries, we must not let ourselves be drawn into this conflict," said Communist deputy Viktor Ilyukhin. "To do so would catastrophically destabilize the situation in the country."
Finally, many deputies agreed that Moscow should take a more active position. One of the participants in the session behind closed doors said that former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov sharply criticized the country’s current passive stance, saying that, "Russia should move ahead of the United States and not follow in its wake."
Primakov reportedly believes that Russia is in an advantageous strategic situation and should use its potential to be a third "balancing" force, and at the same time strengthen its positions in the Middle East, which it has lost in recent times.
Most supporters of a more activist approach say that Russia should state clearly that anti-terrorist operations should not be directed against a whole state or people, especially not until investigations are over and the guilty identified.
"It’s important now to have the [U.N.] Security Council working the whole time. It has to discuss any steps," said Lysenko. "What’s happening now is unprecedented. The West has essentially given America carte blanche to bomb any country. But before the reprisal operations begin, the Security Council has to listen to all the arguments and make a decision."
As for domestic issues and the new Duma session, no one today is arguing with the fact that the Kremlin has secured a majority in the parliament and can push any draft laws through. This, along with the upheaval in the international situation, has brought an abrupt halt to rumors about dissolving the Duma.
In the coming session the parliament is due to debate new legislation on the critical issue of banking reform, and hear second and third readings of other key items like the land and labor codes, pension reform, judicial reform and, of course, the 2002 budget.
In relation to banking, a draft law on deposit guarantees, bank capitalization levels and changes in the law on the Central Bank are likely to be introduced, though there is expected to be heated argument over the issue.
The controversial Land Code, relating to the sale and purchase of urban property – and only covering approximately 2 percent of land in Russia – was passed in its third reading on Thursday. When the legislation was initially agreed earlier, the president had made it clear he wanted the issue resolved before the end of the year.
Also to come before the Duma are bills relating to pension reform that will involve the introduction of a three-tiered package of basic, insurance-based and accumulated pensions.
Work to come
There will be continuing work on overhauling the country’s judicial system, which still functions under the Soviet model. This includes changes to the Criminal Code, including improved protection for suspects and a more modern investigation procedure, and changes in the status and salary of judges.
Parliamentary deputies seem resigned to the fact that no matter what their thoughts are on various pieces of legislation, the Kremlin is now in control. "The Duma is totally obedient now," said Yabloko’s Ivanenko. "I don’t know whether this is good or bad, but the fact is that the government can push through whatever it wants now."
The immediate priority for the government, though, will be to secure the passage of next year’s budget. "In autumn, the main thing is the budget," Ivanenko agreed. "It will go through. I think that they’ll add another 50 billion [rubles] for the Duma, like the way you leave a 10-kopek tip in a restaurant."
But Gennady Raikov, leader of the Narodny Deputat (People’s Deputy) group, which is a part of the pro-Putin coalition, radiated calm and said that, "all points of view would be taken into account."