- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

A bitter leadership feud in Russia's Communist Party threatens to bring about a major shift of power in the country's legislature and a new challenge to the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Communist Party's central committee earlier this month voted to expel Gennady Seleznev, speaker of the State Duma, and two other Duma committee chairmen after they refused to give up their posts.

Party leader Gennady Zyuganov had demanded they quit to protest a Kremlin-backed reorganization of the Duma that cost the party seven of the nine committee chairmanships that it held.

Boris Nemtsov, head of the small but influential Union of Right Forces, a pro-market party in the Duma, said this week that the most probable outcome of the dispute will be an end to the Communists' dominance of the left in Russian politics and the emergence of a new European-style social democratic grouping.

"The Kremlin wants to blitzkrieg the party, to destroy the influence of the Communists once and for all," Mr. Nemtsov said during a Washington visit.

Such a shift would have profound effects on the Duma, which is dominated by an amorphous alliance of parties that is loyal to Mr. Putin but has no clear ideology of its own.

More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party remains the single largest and the most disciplined political party in Russia. Public opinion polls give it the support of about a third of the electorate, and it is the largest single bloc in the State Duma, with 84 of the 450 seats.

Thomas Remington, an expert on Russian parliamentary politics who teaches at Atlanta's Emory University, said it has long been a goal of the Kremlin to undercut the Communists.

"[Former President] Boris Yeltsin tried to do it, and Putin clearly would like to do it, but the Communist Party has a very centralized structure," Mr. Remington said. "Even with the serious splits in the party right now, the odds are still probably against a center-left grouping emerging as a real challenger."

Still, the party clearly has been damaged by the soap opera played out during the past two months between Mr. Seleznev and Mr. Zyuganov, one that the liberal publication Nezavisimaya Gazeta described as a "Duma coup."

The four parties in the pro-Kremlin "Unified Russia" bloc, which control a combined 240 seats in the Duma, pushed through a motion April 3 that stripped the Communists and the allied Agrarian Party of seven of their nine committee chairmanships. The bulk of the chairmanships were given to pro-Kremlin parties, while a key economic policy committee chairmanship went to Mr. Nemtsov's Union of Right Forces.

Mr. Putin officially proclaimed himself neutral in the contest, but let it be known that he felt there were "no grounds for changing the speaker."

Sergei Markov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Research, predicted at the time that the Communist split could pave the way for a center-left coalition in the Duma that would have significant Kremlin support.

Mr. Yeltsin's tenure in office was marked by debilitating fights with the Communist-controlled Duma. Mr. Putin, despite personal approval ratings topping 70 percent and a functional majority in the legislature, has reasons to be concerned as the Duma gears up for elections late next year.

The president has few close allies in the legislature and faces a major fight as he attempts to centralize powers held by Russia's provincial governors.

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