New and improved parliament
Much has already been said about how convenient it is for the Kremlin to work with a compliant parliamentary majority which ensures that almost all legislation goes through smoothly. That does not mean further improvements (from the Kremlin standpoint) cannot be made. Indeed, the Duma and Federation Council look set to become even more compliant.
The Duma began the new political season with some major changes in its party alignment. The centrist Unity (Yedinstvo) and Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) Duma factions merged last December to form the All-Russian Party of Unity and Fatherland and will now follow a common line in the Duma. Previously, OVR deputies had been prone to bouts of bargaining with their Kremlin overseers, but these displays of independence are now a thing of the past.
The People's Deputy (Narodny Deputat) group, headed by Gennady Raikin, which had been Unity's loyal ally, will probably move towards the left to avoid being totally dissolved in the new centrist bloc. For the centrists, this will be offset by the arrival of some deputies from Boris Nemtsov's SPS (Union of Right Forces). After the Liberal Russia party, sponsored by Boris Berezovsky, split off from SPS and cast itself as an actively right-wing opposition party, SPS has little choice but to relinquish some of its own ambitions and take a more moderate centrist line.
Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR have long since lost any influence they had over political decisions and are guided these days mostly by electoral considerations. Depending on the election strategy they choose, they will either play their own game and criticize the Kremlin, or take shelter under the Kremlin's wing in exchange for support in the next elections.
The Duma communists are a case apart. After growing soft during their years of holding the Duma majority and enjoying their status as an indispensable part of the Russian political establishment, they are being forced to shed their flab and return to the austere rations of uncompromising opposition on the political sidelines. Sources in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) say party leader Gennady Zyuganov and his allies have faced up to the facts and re-embraced their former role as zealous fighters for the rights of the downtrodden masses.
Improvements are also under way in the Federation Council upper house. New Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, President Vladimir Putin's St. Petersburg protege, has been quick to approve new regulations for the senators' work that increase the number of committees and number of meetings every month. These changes will help make the Federation Council no more than a predictable tool in the Kremlin's hands.
These "improvements" to the parliamentary process look rational if one follows the maxim that "the ends justify the means." But the historical experience of this approach does not bode well. Warning signals are already starting to come, such as the demonstrative departure of Yury Algunov, head of the Federation Council press service.
"The authorities are already fast closing themselves off from society. But it is especially dangerous when the same thing happens in parliament," Algunov said in an interview with a Moscow newspaper.
No happy new year for Aksyonenko
Only two days into the new year, all the best wishes and other seasons greetings took on a note of bitter irony for Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko. Getting fired on the first working day after the holidays is hardly a good start to the year. The presidential decree confirming the move was written as an acceptance of Aksyonenko's resignation, but whatever the form, the fact is that the head of one of the three natural monopolies has been brought down.
As if this wasn't enough, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov was quoted in the media as saying he intended to take the criminal case launched against Aksyonenko through to its end. For Aksyonenko, a favorite of former President Boris Yeltsin, plenty more trouble could lie ahead.
This old influence and closeness to Yelstin's circle are seen by many as the cause of Aksyonenko's current problems. When Aksyonenko's troubles with the prosecutors became public two months ago, it was seen as the signal for a purge of Yeltsin's people. Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's attempts to defend Aksyonenko only added spice to the situation, as Kasyanov is more a Yeltsin appointee than a Putin one.
If Kasyanov was so quick to accept Aksyonenko's letter of resignation, it could have been something to do with the fact that Kasyanov had just met with Ustinov, who no doubt described the prospects for a classic corruption case against Aksyonenko.
(Ekaterina Larina is assistant editor of The Russia Journal. E-mail Katya at email@example.com.)