Russian parliament opens after fraud-tainted vote

AP News
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Posted: Dec 21, 2011 10:17 AM
Russian parliament opens after fraud-tainted vote

The parliament chosen in a fraud-tainted election that set off protests throughout Russia opened its first session Wednesday with the new speaker promising to allow more genuine debate in an attempt to win back the voters' trust.

Under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the parliament has become little more than a rubber stamp for government initiatives. The previous speaker once famously said it was "not a place for political discussion."

Sergei Naryshkin said this would change with him as the new speaker.

"My firm conviction is that, indeed, parliament is a place for very serious and substantial discussions," said Naryshkin, who until Tuesday had served as chief of staff for President Dmitry Medvedev.

Naryshkin, 57, is a longtime Putin loyalist and has a similar background. He worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s and is widely believed to have served in the KGB in the 1980s. His official biography says little about those years, while noting that he was posted to the Soviet Embassy in Belgium.

Naryshkin is a member of Putin's United Russia party, which won 238 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, parliament's elected lower house. The rest are split among three parties that have posed little opposition in recent years.

Although United Russia managed to retain its majority, it lost nearly 25 percent of its seats in the Dec. 4 election, and independent observers said even that result was achieved through widespread fraud.

Before Wednesday's session began, police broke up a small protest outside and arrested about a dozen people. Some wore signs with the words "we didn't vote for you" and a picture of the bear symbolizing United Russia.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said it was no wonder Russians have taken to the streets. All they saw of their representatives in recent years were pictures of them "sitting lifelessly" in the hall, rather than actively addressing real concerns.

The biggest beneficiary of the protest vote was the Communist Party, which saw the number of its seats rise to 92 from 57.

Party member Zhores Alfyorov, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, called on fellow parliament members to put more effort into the drafting of legislation, rather than simply signing off on government bills. "We need to do the work ourselves and press the button (to cast votes) ourselves," he said, referring to the practice of party members voting for those who were absent.

Naryshkin said he would strive for compromise among the four parties, but if that proved impossible decisions would be made by the majority party, United Russia.

He appointed two top deputies: one a Communist and the other from Putin's team, Alexander Zhukov, who until recently was a deputy prime minister. Zhukov also heads the Russian Olympic Committee, a high-profile post with the Sochi Winter Games now a little more than two years away.

Another notable addition to the new parliament was Alexei Pushkov, a prominent television journalist with anti-Western views. He was named the chairman of the international affairs committee.