Will Yeltsin Get The Parliament Of His Dreams?

As with many things Russian, the campaign to choose a new Parliament is turning gloriously chaotic. Thirteen parties are fielding more than 1,800 candidates. Few have had time to formulate clear platforms or even print posters. Voters are confused. "Pensioners call me every day and ask what words like 'majority' mean," says Viktor Koshvanyets, an editor at the St. Petersburg News.

Yet the Dec. 12 contest will have huge implications for Russia's future. To push ahead market-oriented reforms, Russia badly needs to break out of its ideological gridlock. It needs a legislative body that can crank out coherent laws on everything from property ownership to foreign investment. The previous Parliament's obstructionist stance led to its dissolution by President Boris Yeltsin, culminating in the bloody showdown on Oct. 3-4. Yeltsin is replacing the old Parliament with a U.S.-style upper house-lower house legislature that he hopes will do his bidding.

But even if the parliamentary election does not turn out to his liking, Yeltsin will see his power greatly increased. At the same time they vote for Parliament, voters will likely ratify a new constitution. It gives Yeltsin authority to appoint key officials including the central bank chief. He will be able to dissolve Parliament if it misbehaves. So Yeltsin, who has gone back on an earlier pledge to stand for reelection in June, looks reasonably safe until his term ends in 1996.

But Yeltsin's program would get a key boost if kindred spirits win the balloting. While polling results vary enormously, Russia's Choice, a pro-free-market party headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, the chief architect of Yeltsin's "shock therapy," seems to be leading the pack. Gaidar's group is the best financed and best organized of the 13 contenders. Some analysts predict that Russia's Choice and similar parties, including the Democratic Party of Russia and a group headed by economist Grigori Yavlinsky, will dominate the 450-seat Duma, or lower house, and the 176-seat upper chamber.

But lately the reformers have seemed to be losing ground. There is a possibility that Yeltsin could end up with a split Parliament similar to the one he sacked. The Communists, led by Gennady Zuganov, show surprising strength in polls. No longer banned, the Communists have scored points by blaming 20% monthly inflation and rising unemployment on such Gaidar programs as price liberalization and privatization. Gaidar now fears that the Communists will gang up with the Agrarian Bloc, a farm bureaucrat group, to block market reforms and reintroduce parts of the old Soviet economic system.

CRITICAL CONSTITUTION. The race is close enough that Gaidar and Yavlinsky are pandering to nationalist sentiments. In a flip-flop, they now back a Yeltsin decree blocking 9 of the 12 currently licensed foreign banks from doing business with Russians until 1996. This move has shocked foreign bankers who expected better treatment from Yeltsin once he crushed Parliament.

Yeltsin's answer to legislative uncertainty is of course the new constitution. While reformers, such as St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoli Sobchak, a Duma candidate from the Russian Movement of Democratic Reforms, are critical of the document, they still argue for supporting it. "Otherwise, we will have to live according to the old Brezhnev constitution," says Sobchak. "That would be very dangerous for democracy." The implication may be that Russians are so apathetic and their political parties so divided that they realize they should leave the big decisions to an increasingly powerful Yeltsin.

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