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Six months after capturing more seats in Parliament, the Russian parliamentary opposition remains trapped in the same quagmire, making only timid efforts to justify the hope of Russians who risk their lives for democratic reforms. By contrast, the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, which saw its parliamentary majority weaken sharply in the December 4 vote, has positioned itself as the only answer to Russia's social, political and economic problems. Despite allegations of widespread violations, the party ended up with 238 seats, a slim majority in the 450-member lower house. But the party has since turned its weakness into an advantage, pursuing many aggressive legislative initiatives.
With little opposition to contend with, the State Duma, which started off by approving sweeping political reforms, ended its session on Friday by dismantling many of those reforms. In the wake of protests in December and February, the Kremlin made concessions to the opposition by announcing a host of political reforms. The reforms led to the adoption of a law reinstating direct gubernatorial elections, and another that eases the registration of new political parties. A third law, which reduces the minimum party membership from 40,000 to 500, was designed to help opposition movements join political discourse in the country.
The modest victory was touted as a new beginning for the Russian opposition, which had been fizzled out of political decisions in the country. But despite losing a constitutional majority, United Russia in reality remains the Kremlin's lawmaking tool in the Parliament, Kommersant reported on Monday. The so-called official opposition – including members of the Communist Party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia, a social democratic party – has largely been reduced to spewing sound and steam in the State Duma, the paper said.
While the Communist Party made substantial gains during the December elections, it used its new power to challenge the decisions of the State Duma in the country’s highest court without support from other parties. In recent months, however, the party teamed up with Just Russia to challenge many legislative decisions, ranging from the WTO accession protocol and governorship elections to the law "On gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets." Leading opposition movement figures, including Ilya Ponomarev and the father-son duo Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov of Just Russia, also tried hard to keep the upbeat spirit of the earlier protests alive in the State Duma. They wore the white-ribbon symbol of the anti-Putin demonstrations and employed work-to-rule tactics to disrupt the adoption of key regulations in the Parliament.
Despite such an occasional show of solidarity, however, the parliamentary opposition appeared to have been hobbled by the lack of a common political agenda and even a sense of purpose. Twice during this session the opposition parties missed an important chance to block government policy initiatives, Kommersant wrote on Monday. Both the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party brushed aside concerns about the negative impact on democratic institutions to back a bill that aims to tighten the screws on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. Just Russia also teamed up with the Communist Party to adopt a raft of amendments to the “Law on Government,” despite having drafted alternative proposals.
Meanwhile, the United Russia has kept a tight grip over the legislative process, analysts say. Its control of 49.32 percent of the seats allows it to easily pass laws that do not require a constitutional majority. And with the opposition that is always willing to oblige, the ruling party has had no problems passing laws requiring a two-thirds majority, either. United Russia, too, controls most of the select committees that are key actors in the adoption of Russian legislation. That includes budget, finance and constitutional committees, as well as the committee on economic policy and taxation. Even in committees headed by members of the opposition parties, such as housing and ecology, the United Russia tried to inject enough of its own members to create a numerical advantage that would block any unwelcome initiatives.
Perhaps little else demonstrates the party’s brazenness as the law it pushed through last week, which again makes libel and slander of government officials a felony punishable by fines of up to five million rubles ($165,000). The same United Russia deputies voted to decriminalize defamation in December at the insistence of the party’s current leader, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. United Russia has also reportedly been delaying the debate on a new bill on elections of State Duma deputies. The bill is being mothballed until the Kremlin has clarity on rules for elections, Kommersant cited unnamed sources in the presidential administration as saying.
President's Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin is not making life easy for the opposition, either. The unmistakable message from the Kremlin is that it is in no mood for compromises. The new law regulating protest rallies was rushed through the State Duma on June 5 and signed by President Vladimir Putin on June 8, just before the opposition’s March of Millions slated for June 12. The feeble protests by opposition deputies, including walk-out and work-to-rule by both the Communist Party and Just Russia, did not help.
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