On January 11, 1994, the State Duma of the Russian Federation—the first Russian parliament since 1917 to be elected in a multiparty vote—opened its session in Moscow. On January 14, Ivan Rybkin, who was nominated by leftwing opposition parties, was elected Duma speaker. As the Russian Duma marks its 20th anniversary, IMR Advisor Olga Khvostunova spoke to the former speaker about the experience of the first Duma and the state of the Russian parliament today.

 

 

Olga Khvostunova (O.Kh.): The Russian State Duma is only 20 years’ old, but it has already undergone substantial changes. What key differences do you see between the first Duma and the current one?

Ivan Rybkin (I.R.): The election of the first State Duma of the Russian Federation was held alongside a referendum on the Constitution following the events of October 3 and 4, 1993. The campaign was short but quite free. As a result, eight parties and blocs entered parliament, and five more groups were formed that included deputies elected from single-member districts. Let me remind you that at the time, the State Duma had 225 seats filled from party lists, and 225 seats for individual district deputies. In terms of party lists, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) emerged as the winner, but taking into account district deputies, Yegor Gaidar’s Russia’s Choice movement became the largest group in the Duma. The Agrarians were second, followed by the LDPR and the Communist Party. In other words, the representative function of the Duma was implemented to its full extent: the parliament was defined by the electorate’s will. This is the first major difference between the first Duma and the current one.

O.Kh.: Some experts note that the current Duma’s control function is almost nullified. Was the 1994-1996 Duma different in that sense?

I.R.: Yes, we had more control. For example, the nomination of the head of the Audit Chamber, the key public oversight authority, was our prerogative. The sixth Duma ceded the right to nominate the chairman of the Audit Chamber to the president. Earlier, the Duma also surrendered to the president the right to nominate the chairman of the Constitutional Court. When we were in office, we delegated the right to choose the chairman of the Constitutional Court to the judges themselves. We thought that the Constitutional Court included our most talented legal experts who should decide among themselves who would be their leader. As for other control functions, the first Duma administered them thoroughly: for instance, we regularly invited the prime minister and cabinet ministers for parliamentary questions.

“The first Duma passed two-thirds of all the laws by which Russia lives today.”

O.Kh.: What are the differences in the lawmaking functions?

I.R.: We inherited a number of bills and legal initiatives from the Supreme Soviet of Russia. Many of those we could not use, because they contradicted the new Constitution adopted in 1993. But over the two years of our work, groups of legal experts, primarily from the Institute of Legislation and Comparative Law, developed a large portfolio of new bills. Overall, the first Duma passed two-thirds of all the laws by which Russia lives today. The remaining one-third was developed by the following five Dumas, plus addenda, amendments, et al. Additionally, the first Duma adopted the so-called second, or economic, Constitution of the Russian Federation—the Civil Code, including its first and second parts that comprise 90 percent of its full text.

O.Kh.: Many experts point out that the first Duma’s high capacity was predetermined by the fact that after the Constitution was adopted, Russia’s legal environment was very much fragmented. Was the quality of your work affected by the constrained timeline?

I.R.: We did have to work fast, but it does not mean we did it poorly. We had the support of the leading legal experts and deputies, 43 percent of whom had academic degrees relevant to lawmaking—in the fields of economics, political science, sociology and, primarily, law. Our dissertations were based on original work as opposed to plagiarisms that many current deputies base their dissertations on. We had to defend our dissertations in a time when it was a hard task. Many deputies in the first Duma could write a bill from scratch without the help of their advisors.

 

Russian Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin in his office. Moscow, 1994.

 

O.Kh.: One of the first decisions taken by the Duma was amnesty for the participants of the events of August 1991 and October 1993. This caused much debate in both the Duma and the government. Did the fact that the parliament was then a real “place for discussion” play a role?

I.R.: When we were working on that bill, opinions differed: the president was very much against the amnesty. And not just the president, but also the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. But we were then acting without a backwards glance to a single decision-making center. The bill was passed, and by the end of the day all the prisoners were released. Many of them left the country, and all of them swore that they would never run for office. Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] told me at that time that these people would cause trouble for the very parliament that released them. I assumed that there might be trouble, but I could never have imagined the scale of it. Some of the former prisoners and participants of the above-mentioned events ended up running for the Duma, became members of the second Duma, and formed a “leftwing patriotic bloc.” And that new Duma called for a new speaker. (Editor’s note: On January 17, 1996, Communist Gennady Seleznyov was elected Duma speaker, defeating Ivan Rybkin by 231 votes to 150.) As for discussions, I have to say that discussions were quite heated and sometimes they would even end in an actual fight. Now, it has been ten years since the Duma stopped to be a place for discussion.

O.Kh.: The first Duma is sometimes called the “fifth Duma” to emphasize its succession from the pre-1917 parliaments. Are such comparisons appropriate?

I.R.: Quite appropriate. In their campaign speeches, many future leaders of the first Duma referred to the pre-revolutionary parliamentary experience. When we were elected, we continued the old Dumas’ traditions and always spoke warmly of their speakers—Muromtsev, Golovin, Khomyakov, Guchkov, Rodzyanko. Moreover, we used the experience of the pre-revolutionary Dumas when we were planning the structure of the new Duma—we took the name of parliament’s consultative body, the Council of Caucuses that included leaders of each Duma caucus, the speaker and his deputies, from the early Duma’s structure. We also published a book titled “The Fifth Russian State Duma,” highlighting the link of time. The book had photographs of all the deputies and their short biographies. However, the second Duma did not support this tradition.

“Elections need to be free and fair, without any fraud or abuse of administrative power. Then the representative function of parliament will be restored, and the legislative process will improve.”

O.Kh.: Is it possible to restore parliamentary traditions in Russia?

I.R.: Parliamentarianism still exists in Russia to a certain extent, but it concedes more and more of its authority to the president. For example, former advisor to President Yeltsin Mikhail Krasnov counted those “concessions”—pieces of power taken away from the parliament and the judiciary in favor of the president­ –– and in his assessment, there have been about 500. I have already mentioned the two most important ones— the nomination of the heads of the Audit Chamber and the Constitutional Court. All these “concessions” diminish the role of the Russian parliament and underline the trend towards over-compromising. In the end, these “concessions” mean that authority, responsibilities, capabilities are transferred to one person—the president of Russia, who is already given super-authority by the Russian Constitution. These “concessions” clutter his work—I think he does not even have time to use all these powers. Overall, these “concessions” complicate the already difficult manual control of the country and will bring nothing good in the future.

O.Kh.: What are the key threats from the lack of parliamentarianism in Russia?

I.R.: In our time, there was a popular argument that it is impossible to govern such an enormous country as Russia from one control center—more power needs to be given to the regional authorities. Besides, it is important that people who represent various Russian regions and their real interests work in the Duma. And to achieve this goal, elections need to be free and fair, without any fraud or abuse of administrative power. Then there will be not just three or four parties in the Duma, but five, or seven, or even ten, in which case the representative function of parliament will be restored, and, as a result, the legislative process will improve because it will be based on the real needs of the country. Parliamentary control over the authorities needs to be expanded in various areas, including domestic and foreign policy. If this does not happen, sadly, the lack of parliamentarianism will lead to a concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people and, as a result, to a repeat of 1991, when a huge country called the USSR ceased to exist.

 

Russian Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin (left) with U.S. President Bill Clinton during a visit by the Duma delegation to Washington DC. March 1994.

 

O.Kh.: You mentioned the role of parliament in shaping foreign policy. As the Duma speaker, you visited the U.S. and met with your counterparts. Were those talks productive? What was their impact on U.S-Russia relations?

I.R.: We had two official visits to the U.S. The first time it was a standard visit from a parliamentary delegation, and the second time it was a visit from the chairmen of key Duma committees. Each time we visited the U.S., the meetings were very warm and friendly. We had meetings both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, and held talks on a whole spectrum of issues in the bilateral relationship. The chairmen of the Duma committees met with their American counterparts and had meaningful discussions on issues of mutual interest and cooperation. I spoke at the U.S. National Governors Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the U.S.-Russia Foundation. Our talks would always result in specific agreements. We really needed U.S. assistance at the time—for example, assistance from the Nunn-Lugar Program that helped Russia dispose of old nuclear weapons and military equipment. Not just in the U.S. but also in Europe, we would always have cordial welcomes and open discussions of our problems. And we would often find support for our endeavors.

O.Kh.: What do you think about the current cooling in relations between Russia and the West?

I.R.: I do not like recent developments. Today, Russia is falling into the Procrustean bed of the Soviet approach. When I hear that during our visits to the U.S. we were in a humiliated, subordinated position, I always firmly respond that it is not true. I think my colleagues who participated in those meetings will agree with me, and they represented the whole spectrum of political forces—from the Communists to Gaidar’s supporters, from the LDPR to Nikolai Travkin’s Democratic Party. Therefore, I think that we have to find common ground with our American and European partners while, naturally, defending Russia’s national interests. All normal countries act in this way.

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