Russian History


The Parliament

The 628-member parliament, termed the Federal Assembly, consists of two chambers, the 450-member State Duma (the lower house) and the 178-member Federation Council (the upper house). Russia's legislative body was established by the constitution approved in the December 1993 referendum. The first elections to the Federal Assembly were held at the same time--a procedure criticized by some Russians as indicative of Yeltsin's lack of respect for constitutional niceties. Under the constitution, the deputies elected in December 1993 were termed "transitional" because they were to serve only a two-year term. In April 1994, legislators, Government officials, and many prominent businesspeople and religious leaders signed a "Civic Accord" proposed by Yeltsin, pledging during the two-year "transition period" to refrain from violence, calls for early presidential or legislative elections, and attempts to amend the constitution. This accord, and memories of the violent confrontation of the previous parliament with Government forces, had some effect in softening political rhetoric during the next two years.

The first legislative elections under the new constitution included a few irregularities. The republics of Tatarstan and Chechnya and Chelyabinsk Oblast boycotted the voting; this action, along with other discrepancies, resulted in the election of only 170 members to the Federation Council. However, by mid-1994 all seats were filled except those of Chechnya, which continued to proclaim its independence. All federal jurisdictions participated in the December 1995 legislative races, although the fairness of voting in Chechnya was compromised by the ongoing conflict there.

The Federal Assembly is prescribed as a permanently functioning body, meaning that it is in continuous session except for a regular break between the spring and fall sessions. This working schedule distinguishes the new parliament from Soviet-era "rubber-stamp" legislative bodies, which met only a few days each year. The new constitution also directs that the two chambers meet separately in sessions open to the public, although joint meetings are held for important speeches by the president or foreign leaders.

Deputies of the State Duma work full-time on their legislative duties; they are not allowed to serve simultaneously in local legislatures or hold Government positions. A transitional clause in the constitution, however, allowed deputies elected in December 1993 to retain their Government employment, a provision that allowed many officials of the Yeltsin administration to serve in the parliament. After the December 1995 legislative elections, nineteen Government officials were forced to resign their offices in order to take up their legislative duties.

Despite its "transitional" nature, the Federal Assembly of 1994-95 approved about 500 pieces of legislation in two years. When the new parliament convened in January 1996, deputies were provided with a catalog of these laws and were directed to work in their assigned committees to fill gaps in existing legislation as well as to draft new laws. A major accomplishment of the 1994-95 legislative sessions was passage of the first two parts of a new civil code, desperately needed to update antiquated Soviet-era provisions. The new code included provisions on contract obligations, rents, insurance, loans and credit, partnership, and trusteeship, as well as other legal standards essential to support the creation of a market economy. Work on several bills that had been in committee or in floor debate in the previous legislature resumed in the new body. Similarly, several bills that Yeltsin had vetoed were taken up again by the new legislature.