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By John Helmer in Moscow

This sequence of picture-frames was taken by cameramen of RenTV, a Moscow television channel, of a vote on first-reading legislation by the State Duma, the initiating chamber for federal laws in Russia, on May 19.

According to the Russian Constitution (ratified by a narrow, suspect margin in December 1993), there are 450 deputies; one of them is the Speaker, who usually does not vote unless a casting ballot is required. The official roll-call for the vote illustrated was 449 votes in favour, none against. The number of deputies registered at the time in the chamber was 88. The method by which 449 votes were cast by 88 deputies has also been shown in the sequence – two men (a third is seen in the video clip, and possibly others off-camera) pressed the voting buttons of 361 absentees. Think of this sequence of frames as a cartoon of Russian parliamentary practice.

The unanimous vote was on a measure to reduce the permissible level of blood alcohol content for a car driver from 0.03 grams per milliliter to zero.

The Duma is rarely reported on any significant issue of Russian policymaking or policy dispute. That is because it lacks most of the constitutional powers that would give its votes significance, especially the power to vote to approve, withhold, or make conditional the state’s money supply or the state budget; these money powers, which have been fundamental in the evolution of Europe’s parliaments for a thousand years, are still missing in Russia.

But the cartoon also reveals that the voting process itself is treated cynically by Russian parliamentarians themselves. The pictures thus give fresh meaning to the methodology of rubber-stamping legislation which has been drawn up by the executive power of the country – the Kremlin and the Prime Ministry. Not only is there a simple method of absentee voting, as shown in the sequence. There is also an elaborate method of concealing that this is what happens, because the standard roll-call data of Duma votes are inaccessible publicly. Those who keep these data – the secretariat of the Duma; the office of the Duma Speaker, Boris Gryzlov; and the secretariats of the Duma parties or factions – refuse to disclose them when asked, and refuse to say what they know or think of this practice of press-button voting.

The 450 deputies are elected nationally every four years – soon to be five – and they are dominated by Kremlin whips and by the Kremlin’s majority party, United Russia. Formally, the seating arrangements in the present parliament, which will go a new 5-year term election in December of 2011 – are 315 for United Russia; 57 for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation; 40 for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s claque); and 38 for Fair Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossia).

The pseudo-unanimous vote on May 19 was first broadcast, with pictures, by RenTV late in the day. On May 27, Agence France Presse ran a foreign language report, based on Russian news agency despatches, of what had happened. The pictures were then republished in a commentary in a Moscow city newspaper called Moi Raion (“My District”) on May 28. There was thus ample time and occasion for the Duma deputies involved to prepare their comment on what had happened. But when asked today to say how common absentee voting or rubber-stamping is, as in the illustration, and how acceptable to the parliamentary factions, noone will say.

The United Russia’s faction office in the Duma said it would not comment, but suggested Deputy Sergei Neverov might; he is a leading figure on the United Russia party council. Recently rejected by the Kremlin when he ran for Kremlin appointment as governor of Kemerovo, Neverov said through his secretary that he is unavailable; he had earlier been reported as telling a Russian news agency that the problem is absenteeism among deputies, not fraudulent voting. The Communist Party press spokesman said he would not respond to questions, but recommended Valery Rashkin, a member of the Duma Committee on Regulations. His office said he was unavailable.

The telephones at the secretariat of LDPR rang without answer through an entire day.

The spokesman for Fair Russia, Svetlana Gupalova, said she is not authorized to comment, and proposed in her place Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov. His office said he will be unavailable to speak on the issue for another week. The leader of Fair Russia, Sergei Mironov, who is also the Speaker of the upper house of parliament known as the Federation Council, has been quoted by Interfax as saying: “You can’t call this situation anything but a disgrace, when a few deputies run around the room pressing buttons for absent colleagues.”

Alexander Moskalets is first deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Constitutional Law, and a member of United Russia. He defended the authenticity of the May 19 vote tally, and hinted that the pictures may have been fabricated. “I cannot confirm the number of the Duma members present at the voting. I was there, and I didn’t see any journalists or cameras recording the process. You should have a look at the protocol; it indicates that all the necessary votes were given and calculated, so there is no problem here.”

Moskalets also defended absenteeism. “Duma regulations state that if a Duma member has a reasonable excuse not to participate in the voting, they can turn in a written form to the head of the Duma or the head of their faction, and entrust their voting right to some other Duma member. If you look at any state organization, you will find out that there is no necessity for all its employees to be present all the time. They can delegate their authority to other employees; this is a normal situation and the working process isn’t affected. I can say that over five years I haven’t witnessed any Duma voting that would be cancelled because of the lack of quorum, not a single time. In most cases, the majority of the Duma members are present, and the work goes on without any difficulty.”

To verify Moskalets’s claims and find evidence of the authenticity of vote tallies and roll-calls, the secretariat (apparat) of the Duma and the office of Speaker Gryzlov were asked to say how many Duma votes have been recorded since January 1 of this year, at which the vote tally amounted to 90% to 95% of the full membership of 450. The head of the secretariat is Alexei Sigutkin. He refused to say if the secretariat keeps a record of tallies and roll-calls, so that it is possible to identify and estimate the number of votes reported at near-unanimity levels. Through a spokesman, he referred the questions to the Duma press service. Gryzlov’s office passed the buck in the same direction.

There Yelena Maslova said she cannot comment, and referred to Anatoly Karimov at the secretariat’s special department in charge of technological and technical support of sessions. Noone answered his telephone, however; and no press-button machine was activated to record the question.

And this is how the cartoon parliament looks in 3D: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-gVSKARKPM&

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