Lawmaking in Russia: Tricks of the trade

The Party of Liberal Democrats, led by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky (on the photo), have proposed a ban on appearing in public places for several hours after eating garlic, so as to save law-abiding Russians from the irritating smell. Source: Photoshot / Vostock Photo

The Party of Liberal Democrats, led by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky (on the photo), have proposed a ban on appearing in public places for several hours after eating garlic, so as to save law-abiding Russians from the irritating smell. Source: Photoshot / Vostock Photo

The lower chamber of the Russian parliament, the Duma, set a new record before the 2013 summer recess by passing as many as 261 new bills. Some of them have caused quite a stir, including the laws banning the propaganda of homosexuality, making it a criminal offense to insult religious feelings, sharply increasing fines for traffic violations, and disbanding the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Sharp-tongued critics have dubbed the Russian parliament “a jet printer gone berserk,” and experts insist that many of the 261 new bills the legislative body recently passed are deeply flawed. Meanwhile, the Duma’s recent attempt to declare an amnesty for economic crimes has been an utter failure.

The idea was to release 110,000–120,000 entrepreneurs jailed for various business shenanigans, but the final version of the bill is so watered down that a mere 300 people will gain their freedom early.

The Russian parliament consists of the lower chamber (the Duma) and the upper chamber (the Federation Council). Bills adopted by the Duma are subject to the Federation Council's scrutiny. The Duma has 450 members who represent various political parties and are elected by a system of proportional representation. The Federation Council has two members from each of the 83 Russian provinces.

Once a bill is adopted by the Duma and approved by the Federation Council, it is submitted to the president for signature. The president can either sign or exercise his right of veto. Once the president has signed the bill, it enters into force immediately upon publication in the state-owned newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, unless the bill itself specifies another date.

Bills can be introduced for the Russian Duma's consideration by Duma members, Federation Council members, the president, the Cabinet, regional legislatures, and the top Russian courts, including the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the High Court of Arbitration.

As of early September 2013, there were 1,704 bills awaiting their turn for the Duma hearing; 836 of them were introduced by Duma members, followed by regional legislatures (455 bills), Federation Council members (183), the Cabinet (181), the president (34), and the Supreme Court and the High Court of Arbitration (15 bills between the two of them). There were no bills awaiting a Duma hearing from the Constitutional Court.

Laws of the land

Click to enlarge the infographics. Drawing by Natalia Mikhaylenko

During the spring 2013 parliament session, which lasted from January to July, the Duma heard a record 639 bills. Out of that number, 261 bills were approved. That is fewer than the 338 bills approved during the entire year of 2012, but more than the second convocation of the Duma (elected in 1995 and dissolved in 1999) had approved during the entire four years of its existence (223).

The bills approved this year include several high-profile laws: the ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and on adoption by homosexual couples; criminal responsibility for defiling religious sites and damaging religious texts; and a huge increase in fines for traffic violations. In regards to the latter, the largest fine has increased from 5,000 rubles to 50,000 rubles (about $1,500).

The Duma has also decided that media outlets can be shut down for publishing swear words. In addition, it has banned smoking on staircases in apartment blocks and made it compulsory for websites to take down pirated audio and video material.

“The highlight of the spring session of the Russian Duma was an ostentatious crusade for morality, in an effort to distract the public’s attention from oppressive new laws,” says Pavel Salin, head of the Center for Political Studies.

"The government now wants to see how the public will react, in order to decide whether to risk any new crackdown measures.” Andrei Piontkovskiy, a political analyst, has scathingly described the Duma as "a jet printer gone berserk.” The Russian parliament “is now spewing out huge numbers of damaging, half-baked and simply stupid laws,” in his view.

What are the chances of a bill being approved once it has been introduced to the Duma? That depends, to a large degree, on who introduced it. The majority in the Duma (238 seats out of 450, or 53 percent) is currently held by the pro-Putin United Russia party.

The Duma therefore invariably approves all the bills submitted by President Putin. It also backs most of the bills drafted by the Cabinet. Yet it rejects more than 90 percent of the bills proposed by its own members, Federation Council members, and regional legislatures.

Mark Urnov, lead researcher at the Applied Political Sciences department of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says that lawmaking has become the prerogative of the Russian Cabinet and the president's office. "That is where everything is decided, even before the proposed bill reaches parliament,” he says. “That is also where all the lobbying is done in Russia.”

Once the bill has been introduced to parliament, it takes three separate hearings for it to be approved. The only exception is the federal budget, which requires four hearings. During the first hearing, the legislature approves the overall principles of the bill.

During the second, it approves or rejects various amendments. During the third, it polishes the final phrasing. The tricky bit is that, during the second hearing, the bill can be "amended" almost beyond recognition.

For example, in 2006, amendments to the proposed new election law removed the minimum turnout requirement (50 percent for federal elections and 25 percent for regional and local polls), and abolished the "against everyone" choice in the ballot papers for those who do not support any of the candidates.

By doing so, the Russian Duma neutralized a powerful instrument that the opposition could previously use to invalidate the poll if its candidates had been barred from running under various pretexts. It became pointless for the opposition to call on its supporters to stay away from the polling stations or to vote "against everyone."

These crucial changes were introduced as "amendments" during the second hearing; the original version of the bill did not contain any such clauses.

A similar trick may well be pulled off this autumn, when the Duma is scheduled to hold the third hearing of the bill on the reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Cabinet introduced the bill only a week before the summer recess, but the Duma had managed to hold the first two hearings in that short period of time, despite protestations by the Academy itself. In the bill, the Cabinet proposes to abolish the Russian Academy of Sciences in its current form.

It also wants to divide the Academy's research institutes into two groups: the ones deemed "effective" will be subordinated to the relevant government agencies in charge of the respective branches of industry. The ones deemed "ineffective" will be shut down. It is not being ruled out that, during the fall session, the Duma will hold a repeat second hearing of the bill to make further amendments.

During the spring session, parliament members had only two days between the first and the second hearing to draw up their proposed amendments, so most of them had simply run out of time.

The current Duma holds its hearings of the bills in too much haste, and the quality of the resulting legislation suffers accordingly, argues Dmitry Abzalov, vice president of the Center for Strategic Communications.

“They pass the headline laws, but there are no bylaws, so the former cannot be properly put into practice," he says. “A classic example is the half-baked amnesty for entrepreneurs jailed for economic offenses.”

The initial version of the bill, which was submitted by the parliamentary business ombudsman Boris Titov, would have enabled the release of 110,000–120,000 people convicted of economic offenses. After numerous amendments, however, the number of people who will benefit from the bill has fallen to just 3,000, and a mere 300 will actually be released from jails and pre-trial detention centers.

Very little depends in the Russian Duma on individual members representing the pro-Putin United Russia party. Each Monday, the United Russia parliamentary faction holds a meeting that decides how the party will vote on each individual bill; its members must obey these decisions. Many do not even bother showing up in parliament; they merely give their voting cards to their party colleagues, so that they could cast the vote for them.

The Duma makes its decisions by electronic voting: Deputies insert their voting cards in their individual slots to identify themselves and then press one of three buttons (Yes, No, or Abstain) before the 10 seconds allotted for each vote expire.

During that 10-second countdown, every one of the United Russia members "holding the fort" must press the necessary buttons for 6–8 of their missing colleagues who gave them their voting cards.

As for the members representing the three other parliamentary parties (the Communist Party, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party), nothing depends on them whatsoever. Their only weapon is the co-called Italian Strike — a tactic whereby their members introduce hundreds of amendments to every bill, forcing the United Russia members to spend long hours rejecting those amendments. That tactic was used in the spring of 2012, when the Duma was debating huge new fines of up to 30,000 rubles ($900) for members of the public taking part in unauthorized rallies.

Another favorite pastime of the opposition Duma deputies is to introduce blatantly populist or patently ridiculous bills that have no chance of being passed. For example, the Communists have proposed spending Russia’s entire gold and currency reserve on payouts to parents for each newborn baby, in order to halt the population decline.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, led by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have proposed a ban on appearing in public places for several hours after eating garlic, so as to save law-abiding Russians from the irritating smell.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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