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Russia's Lawmakers Flex Muscles, Check Guns


It's no accident that the Russian parliament, with its lawyers, limos and members-only elevators, bears such a striking resemblance to the U.S. Congress. "We used the American system as our model," said Fyodor Burlatsky, a former adviser to Mikhail S. Gorbachev and one of the planners of the first post-Soviet legislature. "Your politicians would be right at home here."

Of course, that assumes that they come trained in hand-to-hand combat and armed to the teeth.

Last year, while members of the U.S. House and Senate were arguing over which weapons to include in the controversial crime bill, their Russian counterparts were busy deciding which ones they should bring to work.

In fact, the incoming firepower got so heavy that Speaker Ivan Rybkin warned the 450 members of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, that if they didn't disarm voluntarily, they would have to pass through metal detectors before taking their seats. The threat apparently worked.

Just the same, it's hard to blame Russian lawmakers for wanting to protect themselves.

In the last year, three of them have been murdered, the most recent a month ago in a gangland-style execution in the woods outside Moscow.

The violence has reached the point that Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the outspoken ultranationalist, is demanding that he and his colleagues get around-the-clock police protection.

Noting that the three unsolved murders look like the work of well-organized hit squads, Mr. Zhirinovsky called the crimes a "national emergency.

"If these assassinations had happened in any other country, the killers would have been caught by now," he told a crowd gathered for the funeral of the latest politician to be killed. "In Russia no one is safe."

Since two of the three slain politicians also were businessmen, speculation is that their deaths could have resulted from run-ins with Moscow's mafia gangs. Low salaries (around $75 per month) often force lawmakers into the seamy and sometimes high-risk position of needing second incomes. Mr. Zhirinovsky, for example, sells interviews for $1,000 a minute.

But basic survival is just one of many concerns facing Russian legislators. "We are just beginning as a political democracy and are still learning to cope with problems the U.S. Congress solved 200 years ago," said Boris Zolotoukhin, deputy chairman of the Duma's committee on legal reform. Last summer, Mr. Zolotoukhin and other Russian elected officials attended a special two-week seminar on government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School.

Speakers, including Michael S. Dukakis, and Sen. Edward M. Ken- nedy, were "interesting," though somewhat out of touch with reality, Mr. Zolotoukhin said, explaining that his country's current problems constitute a "unique mess" that only Russians can understand.

The biggest task lawmakers in Moscow face is redefining their authority under a new constitution that puts the largest share of power in the hands of President Boris N. Yeltsin. Following difficulties with the last legislature, which he forced out of business in a bloody confrontation 17 months ago, Mr. Yeltsin made sure its replacement was designed to give him the least amount of trouble.

The Duma's present role is limited to passing federal budgets, appointing the chairman of the Central Bank and approving the president's choice of prime minister. Last month, constitutional amendments were introduced that would permit parliament to hold investigations and obtain other information from the government. But even assuming those measures pass, Mr. Yeltsin is almost certain to veto them, further increasing friction between the two branches.

The Federation Council, the 150-member upper house, is even more ineffectual than the Duma. With many council delegates holding other government jobs in Moscow or in Russia's far-flung regions, meetings often amount to little more than ceremonial gripe sessions. In a bold step several weeks ago, delegates did finally manage to appoint a constitutional court, another victim of Mr. Yeltsin's 1993 crackdown. While the court has yet to be tested, it can now be said that all three branches of Russia's government are back in place again, if not all functioning with equal power.

In January, the Council of Europe voted to suspend membership talks with Russia, saying that it would take up the question only after changes in the Russian constitution created an improved systems of checks and balances.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, a member of the Duma's committee on legislation, welcomed the news, explaining that "parliamentary control should have been in our constitution from the start." Mr. Pokhmelkin, affiliated with the liberal Russia's Choice, one of more than a half-dozen parties represented in the legislature, told the Moscow Times that the lack of such control "gives rise to monstrous high-handedness on the part of the president such as we've seen in Chechnya."

Yeltsin supporters naturally take a different view. Claiming that presidential rule is the only form of government suited to conditions in present-day Russia, one of the drafters of the new constitution, Alexander Yakovlev, said "it's impossible to say" when the situation will be stable enough "that we can move toward a parliamentary republic."

Stability, however, is a relative term in a country where opinion surveys show that crime, terrorism and military coups are the three top public concerns. And with parliamentary elections scheduled for December, those concerns are expected to be major issues.

Still under debate is how to impose campaign spending limits and what truth-in-advertising rules, if any, will apply during the campaign. In the 1993 elections, Mr. Zhirinovsky promised voters that he would lower the price of vodka if he won. But once in office, he came out with his own label of potato juice that now sells for twice the price of other brands.

One popular theory is that the quality of Russian politicians will improve only after the big talkers, like Mr. Zhirinovsky, see they can lose at the polls if they don't produce. Another is that liberals will be swept aside as they have been in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria, as voters oust reformers and return power to the socialists.

To prevent that from happening, some lawmakers are said to be secretly talking to American campaign consultants, but considering the increase in anti-foreign sentiment among voters that could become another campaign issue.

"Slick American-style ads would remind people of TV commercials and actually make them not want to vote for somebody," said an aide to one Federation Council delegate.

Then too, the murder earlier this month of a Russian television executive, supposedly in a dispute over advertising revenue, suggests that Russian ad firms may not take kindly to Americans moving in on their territory.

Assuming that they're not postponed or canceled by presidential decree, the parliamentary elections also will be a referendum on Mr. Yeltsin and the course of democratic reforms, a principal interest of U.S. policy-makers and members of Congress, such as Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat, who visited Moscow last year when he was House majority leader to give his support to reformers.

What help, if any, such endorsements will be to disorganized liberal party candidates remains highly questionable.

Early predictions are that the resurgent Communists will come away winners when the votes are counted. Experts at exploiting social unrest, they have been working hard to capitalize on public nostalgia for the good old days of law and order.

At a time when Congress is talking about cutbacks in foreign aid, conservative factions in the Russian legislature are telling Americans to keep their money and their advice, a gesture of contempt that appeals to many Russian voters, who blame the country's high inflation on U.S. economic innovations.

"The mistake Americans made is to assume that Russians would automatically embrace democratic reforms, when in reality most don't even know what democracy is," said the Brooklyn-born Russian TV personality Vladimir Posner.

The problem, some fear, is that if the Communists do as well as expected in the next election, they may never have the chance to learn.

Bill Thomas is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. His books include "Red Tape: Adventure of Capitalism in the New Russia" and "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill."

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