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Russia Too Tired to Protest Yeltsin's Powerful Grip

The Duma votes today on whether to accept Yeltsin's choice for prime minister.

By Judith MatloffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 1998



MOSCOW

Will it be strike two, or a hit for Sergei Kiriyenko, President Boris Yeltsin's candidate to be prime minister of Russia?

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The Communist-dominated Duma, or lower house of parliament, is scheduled to hold a second vote today, after rejecting his nomination last week.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov says he remains convinced that the thirtysomething technocrat, with less than a year's experience in national government, "doesn't fit the job of prime minister."

The party is pushing for an open ballot to discourage further defections to the president's side. On Tuesday, another prominent Communist, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov, announced support for Mr. Kiriyenko, saying he would rather see him approved than have President Yeltsin disband parliament. "For me, the fate of the State Duma is 1,000 times more important," he said.

Most pundits believe Kiriyenko will be approved on either the second or third try, underscoring Yeltsin's firm grip on power. Under the 1993 Constitution, the president can dissolve parliament and call new elections if lawmakers reject his nominee for premier three times.

"We must cooperate with the government [in] power, whether we like it or not, for the interest of the nation," says Alexei Podberyozkin, a Communist member of the Duma.

Salaries at risk

"Certainly their financial situation will influence the deputies' voting decision. If parliament is dissolved, a lot of deputies will lose their salaries, their apartments, their savings, and their medical care," he says. Loss of jobs and possible humiliation in new parliamentary votes are a prospect many legislators do not want to risk.

Despite an ongoing economic crisis - one-fifth of Russian workers have gone unpaid for months - the party that held total power here for 74 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been unable to tap into social discontent.

"The opposition [has been able to] change the government only twice in history," says Vladimir Pribuilovski, president of Panorama, a Moscow-based political science center. That was during the 1917 revolution and in 1991, when people came out in the streets, inspired by Yeltsin dramatically standing on a tank, to oppose a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. "But they can't today," Mr. Pribuilovski says. "Institutionally, our opposition is very weak and divided. It is a historical tradition dating back hundreds of years to the czars."

He and other analysts have several explanations for why there has been no effective political opposition, and with it civil unrest, as there might have been elsewhere in the world. Opposition parties are shackled by a political system devised by Yeltsin during his seven-year presidency, which gives him power to override the Duma with few checks and balances. Before that there was a long history of popular passivity and virtually no political opposition, first under the monarchy and then under Soviet rule.

Fear of change

"It's our mentality to support the powers that be because of our fear that another government could be worse," says Dmitri Furman, a political scientist at the state-run Institute of European Countries in Moscow. Even some Communists say they have only themselves to blame. Many of Russia's 150 million citizens still connect the party with years of Soviet totalitarianism. The party also lacks a charismatic leader, experts say, and an imaginative vision for economic reform.

Opposition from other ideological flanks is even more flaccid. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky lost his once-vibrant support with his clownish antics, and usually backs Yeltsin on crucial Duma votes. The small, mainstream Yabloko Party is vocal, but simply too out of touch with the grass roots to mobilize much support, say analysts.

On the streets, popular opposition has been equally weak. Trade unions called nationwide demonstrations April 9 to protest record unpaid wages estimated at more than $1 billion. Only about a million people turned out - far short of the 20 million that organizers boasted they would draw.

Pribuilovski and other analysts don't expect the opposition to gain much ground, in the short term at least. They say Russia's economic ills are minor suffering compared with the million of deaths from war, purges, repression, and revolution this century. People are simply too tired or too busy to go out and protest. "There has been no social explosion because there is no unanimity among the opposition of what is to be done next," he says.

"Although people are not paid their salaries, they are working in the underground economy. They don't have time to participate in rallies. They are too busy trying to earn money," he says.