Dancing With Duma

There was much comment about the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution, but one very important event went largely unnoticed in the Russian media. Before the November holidays, President Boris Yeltsin attended a session of the State Duma -- for the first time since the tragic confrontation with the former Supreme Soviet and the shooting on the parliament in 1993 and after several veiled threats to dismiss the Duma. The visit seems to me very symptomatic of Yeltsin's new approach to the opposition.

Until quite recently, the confrontation between the legislative and executive branches seemed to be intensifying. A motion of no confidence in the government, the dissolution of the parliament and launching of impeachment procedures all seemed likely. It was clear, though, that the authorities were interested in political stability in order to allow the positive economic tendencies that have appeared this year to be strengthened and possibly create a precedent for the start of economic growth. The Communists would not have stood to benefit from disbanding the parliament because they could be pushed out by competitors, such as a bloc under former security tsar Alexander Lebed, Lev Rokhlin's new movement in support of the military or a radical communist bloc. A vote of no confidence would also have been to the Communists' disadvantage because this could have led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom they consider a moderate, patriotic politician. His removal from office could have increased the role of the team of young reformers, whom the Communists hate and consider the main destroyers of Russia.

Moreover, according to opinion polls, the new Duma members would not have been any more loyal to the government than the present deputies. Most analysts agree that a new Duma would still have been composed of four factions, including one led by Lebed. The Communists, Yabloko and Our Home Is Russia would have kept their positions. In other words, in a new Duma, the Kremlin would have had to continue to work with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and other opposition figures such as Nikolai Ryzhkov, Viktor Ilyukhin, Sergei Baburin and Anatoly Lukyanov -- except that they would have been emboldened by another mandate from the voters. The one exception is the extremist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which would have had to step aside for Lebed's bloc. This would have been much to the Kremlin's disadvantage.

Zhirinovsky poses no serious dangers to the party in power for the presidential elections in 2000. His star has almost entirely fallen. Lebed's star, on the contrary, is rising. If he were given the chance to become leader of a parliamentary faction in 1998, this would mean providing the most threatening candidate of the political establishment with a two-year platform to carry out his presidential campaign. A parliamentary post would have also given Lebed the opportunity to use the Duma's material resources, such as Duma offices, free telephone calls, trips and a staff, for the pre-election campaign.

The Kremlin decided to make a compromise -- and one that is historic. This is the first time dialogue between the authorities and opposition and between the legislative and executive branches has been institutionalized. The Council of Four and round-table and oversight committees at state television have been created. For the first time in the recent history of Russia, the opposition will have the opportunity to exercise influence on key political questions. As part of the deliberative process, the opposition will now have to take proper responsibility for the government course through a system of consultative bodies.

The result of the precedent of political accord will soon be a visible growth in political stability and will turn the current leader of the oppositional forces -- the Communist Party -- into a systemic opposition that dreams not so much of overtaking power as occupying a place in the power structures. The Communists' goal will not be a change of regime but of those who rule the country. Yeltsin proposed to opposition leaders that they be part of the delegation on his recent visit to China. Before the November holiday, the radical part of the opposition -- Trudovaya Rossiya, headed by Viktor Anpilov, the Union of Officers, headed by Stanislav Terekhov and the National-Bolshevik Party, headed by Eduard Limonov -- held a joint congress in which they announced a final break with the "compromising people sitting in the Duma." They also called for reviving the Soviet Communist Party, which should lead the "future revolution that will be brought forth to replace the anti-people's regime." Clearly, Zyuganov is not expected to be included in the company of these people. Rather, he is considered one of its enemies.

Yeltsin's visit to the Duma and his awarding Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov of the Communist Party a medal for services to the fatherland were not by chance. This was yet another step by Yeltsin toward making compromise the main model for Russian politics -- which above all means stability. This is the kind of stability that not only calms investors' fears but encourages the loyalty of the opposition in important questions. The tax code will be one of the first examples of this. Rather than fall victim to an atmosphere of political confrontation, the tax code will be discussed in a professional manner. As a result, after brief deliberations, it will apparently soon be adopted in the Duma by both pro-government factions as well as the Communists and their allies.

Sergei Markov is director of the Association of Political Consulting Centers. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.