WHILE the Kremlin is embroiled in intrigue and conflict over the formation of a new government, Russia's new parliament has settled down into a semblance of quiet, orderly work.
The flamboyant extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky sits in the chamber like a barely contained ball of lighting, his hands and mouth in constant movement as he expostulates to one of his party faithful in the next seat. His stream of outrageous pronouncements to the eager horde of press has dried up to a trickle.
Yegor Gaidar, the deputy premier and market-reform architect who left the government last week, is energetically taking up the role of parliamentarian, often leaping to the microphone to assert his faction's position on everything from a deputy's salary to the legislative agenda.
Presiding over the chamber with growing respect and authority is pleasant-looking, dark-haired Ivan Rybkin, a Communist deputy in the former parliament who now represents the Communist-allied Agrarian Party. Since his election last week, Mr. Rybkin has worked hard to end the chaos of the Duma's first days. From behind closed doors, he orchestrated a complex horse-trade to come up with a slate of deputy chairmen and committee chiefs agreed to by all the parties.
``Rybkin is a very strong speaker,'' says deputy Vladimir Averchev, a former deputy representing the reformist Yabloko faction, led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky. ``He intends to play a moderating role,'' he adds, pointing to his insistence that the first deputy chairman come from Gaidar's Russia's Choice party.
Standing behind Rybkin is a powerful bloc of the Communist and Agrarian parties that has clearly shown itself to be the key organizing force in the State Duma, as Russia's new parliament is called. ``The election of a representative of the Communist Party to head the Duma, despite the fact that it is Ivan Rybkin, one of the most decent and tolerant people in this party, means that a red flag has been hoisted over the State Duma,'' says deputy Vladimir Lysenko, a veteran of Russia's democratic movement.
The one to watch
Indeed, while attention is focused on Zhirinovsky, it is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov who many believe is the most important figure in the new parliament. In practice, the Communists are determining the agenda, with active support from Zhirinovsky's misnamed Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Nikolai Travkin's Democratic Party of Russia (DPR).
``Zhirinovsky is actually a controllable figure,'' says independent reformist deputy Irina Khakamada, an economist and daughter of a Japanese Communist exile. ``He's just being used at the appropriate moment, when there is a need to blow up the assembly. What really is happening is coordination between Communists, Agrarians, LDP, and DPR. They have an absolute majority.''
In truth, as Agrarian Party leader Vladimir Isakov is quick to point out, ``without the support of the independents, these factions together cannot pass decisions, as voting has demonstrated. That's why decisions of a centrist nature are being passed.... Extreme proposals from either side are turned down.''
No firm grip
Yesterday, for example, the Duma, or lower house of parliament, did not pass a proposal to create a commission to investigate the events of September and October, when armed force was used by the government to disband the old parliament. Fewer than 200 lawmakers supported the idea, short of the 223 votes needed for a majority.
The four antireform parties command 178 deputies on their faction lists. The three major reform parties have 133 votes. In between are the 90 votes of two centrist groups, the Women of Russia and the New Regional faction composed of independent deputies elected not by party but from single-member districts. In addition are smaller groups, not large enough to form official factions, including a reformist one and a larger nationalist group.
On most issues, the Communist-Agrarians are able to mobilize the independents' support to get what they want, but on more controversial issues they have fallen short. Both because of this reality, and for reasons of calculation, the Communists are generally showing a moderate face, positioning themselves as centrists.
``The Communists and Agrarians will try to move toward the center, leaving on one flank Zhirinovsky's party,'' Mr. Lysenko predicts. ``Then they will be able to say that they are not extremists, that there are more radical factions, and they are more respectable.''
The Communists are reaching out even to the more conservative ends of the reform spectrum, as well as to independents, seeking to free themselves from dependency on Zhirinovsky. ``It will be possible to find common language with the Communists and Agrarians on a number of serious issues,'' Mr. Lysenko says.
Independent Khakamada complains that the work of the Duma is already dominated by the parties that are less interested in lawmaking than in the next elections. Further, she says, the reformist parties are split and each trying to make separate deals with the more united opposition.
Zhirinovsky's game is perhaps the simplest. ``Zhirinovsky has started preparations for presidential elections, and the world press is helping him in that,'' Agrarian leader Isakov says.
While many Communists still seek to take revenge for the dissolution of the old parliament, rejecting the legitimacy of those actions, the party is also careful to avoid a new confrontation that would give the president another opportunity to disband the Duma. ``The more moderate part [of the party] is seeking an even more decisive victory in the 1996 elections, with Communists coming to power in both the government and presidential structures and in the parliament,'' says Lysenko, himself a former Communist.
Both left and right
Communist leader Zyuganov is associated by many with the more hard-line wing of the party but he tends to express both moderate and hard-line views. He signed a declaration on Tuesday in the former Communist daily Pravda denouncing the current Constitution, passed in a referendum last December, as ``illegitimate'' and calling for the Duma to arrange election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.
Still Zyuganov also presented this week a proposed Communist legislative agenda that contains relatively constructive, though conservative, proposals for laws on economic reform, science and technology, pensions, a tough anti-crime package, and in an appeal to the Orthodox Church, laws to combat the influx of foreign religions and pornography.
The dynamic of events in the Duma will hinge on the formation of the government. With the predominance of conservatives around Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin over the reformers linked to Mr. Gaidar, the Communists are likely to take a more sympathetic attitude.