- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000

MOSCOW President Vladimir Putin won two important victories in parliament yesterday when the upper house approved his tax-reform plan and, under strong pressure, accepted an overhaul of the chamber that will cost them their jobs.

Mr. Putin had pushed for the tax reforms, which include replacing the progressive income tax with a flat 13 percent tax, as critical to restoring the Russian economy. The labyrinthine tax system has discouraged foreign investors and encouraged many Russians to avoid paying taxes altogether.

"In the long run, the revenues coming into the state coffers will increase because the economy will improve," said chamber member Aman Tuleyev, addressing fears that the tax reform would deprive regional administrations of some of their revenue.

"No one will suffer from the common result of our steady advancement," said Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

The parliament overhaul is part of Mr. Putin's move to exert strong central control over the sprawling country. The upper house, the Federation Council, now consists of regional governors and legislature heads, but under the measures approved yesterday, they will be replaced by appointed legislators.

The upper house had been widely expected to reject the measure and perhaps the tax reform as well. But both measures had been approved by the lower house, the State Duma, by a margin wide enough that the Duma apparently could easily override a Federation Council veto.

In the end, the upper chamber approved the parliament overhaul by a vote of 119-18, with four abstentions.

"A bad law or a weak law is better than the absence of any power or any government at all," Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev said after the vote. "Lately, there has been no [central control] in Russia. One had to start somewhere."

The bill also strips the regional leaders of immunity from criminal prosecution. The measure, a compromise version of Mr. Putin's original proposal, will allow regional leaders to keep their Federation Council seats until early 2002, instead of having to leave early next year.

Mr. Putin has said the often-unruly Russian regions must be reined in to restore order and trust in government. Many of the regional governors are highly authoritarian and have pushed for greater autonomy.

But opponents say Mr. Putin is consolidating too many powers.

"Such a disproportionate concentration of power in a single person's hands, such a destruction of the system of checks and balances, is very dangerous for democracy and for the fate of parliamentarism," Nikolai Fyodorov, leader of the central Russian region of Chuvashia, said during Wednesday's debate.

Vladimir Fedotkin of the Ryazan regional legislature said: "A political battle is going on, and there were a lot of calls from the Kremlin pressuring my colleagues."

The Federation Council's duties include approving presidential proposals on introducing martial law and states of emergency, authorizing the deployment of Russian troops abroad, appointing constitutional and Supreme Court justices, and appointing and dismissing the prosecutor-general.

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