The Russian Parliament—The Federal Assembly—is made of two houses: the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house, with deputies (representatives) elected to four year terms; and the 166-seat Federation Council, the upper house, made up of regional leaders. The Duma overseas economic matters. The Federation Council coordinates exchanges between the national government and the regional governments.

The legislature in Russia is weak. The President has almost all of the constitutional power. Although the General Assembly has the power to debate issues its power to influence decisions is questionable. For example, an attorney general nominated by Yeltsin was rejected by the Assembly three times but continued to keep his job in an acting capacity. According to the constitution, if the Duma votes three times against the president's choice for prime minister the Duma must be disbanded.

The Duma, is the more influential of the two houses. The name Duma was first used by the tsars to describe the lower house that was forced to disband in the closing days of tsarist Russia. The leader of the party with the most seats is called the People's Deputy leader.

In the 1990s, the Federation Council was made up of regional governors and heads of the regional legislatures of the 89 subnational jurisdictions into which Russia is divided. In 2000 Putin increased his control of the Federation Council by introducing legislation to change the composition of the upper house from local elected officials to legislators appointed by Moscow. The Federation Council is as you would expect is generally compliant to the wishes of the Russian leadership. Its member are appointed by regional council. It has little involvement in policy making and generally approves what ever is given to it by the Kremlin.

Legislative branch description: bicameral Federal Assembly or Federalnoye Sobraniye consists of the Federation Council or Sovet Federatsii (166 seats; 2 members in each of the 83 federal administrative units - oblasts, krays, republics, autonomous okrugs and oblasts, and the federal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg - appointed by the top executive and legislative officials; members serve 4-year terms) and the State Duma or Gosudarstvennaya Duma (450 seats; as of February 2014, the electoral system reverted to a mixed electoral system for the 2016 election in which one-half of the members are directly elected by simple majority vote and one-half directly elected by proportional representation vote; members serve 5-year terms). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Duma and Soviet-Era Legislature

In tsarist times, a duma was an advisory council to the princes of Kievan Rus' and the tsars of the Russian Empire. The Duma (In full, Gosudarstvennaya duma — State Assembly) was the lower chamber of the legislature of Russia, established by Nicholas II after the Revolution of 1905, and functioning until 1917. Unlike advisory bodies such as the boyar dumy of the Kievan Rus' period and city dumy of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Duma originally was to be a national representative body with the power to approve legislation. The first two Dumy (1905-07) were quickly dissolved because they opposed tsarist policies; the next two (1907-17) were more conservative and served full five-year terms.

The Congress of People's Deputies was established in 1988 by constitutional amendment, the highest organ of legislative and executive authority in the Soviet Union. As such, it elected the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union's standing legislative body. The Congress of People's Deputies elected in March-April 1989 consisted of 2,250 deputies. The congress ceased to exist with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Russian Legislative Elections

Legislative elections: State Duma - last held on 4 December 2011 (next to be held in December 2016) . Election results in 2011: State Duma - United Russia 49.6 percent, CPRF 19.2 percent,A Just Russia 13.2 percent, LDPR 11.7 percent, other 6.3 percent; seats by party - United Russia 238, CPRF 92, A Just Russia 64, LDPR 56. The State Duma now includes 2 representatives each from the Republic of Crimea and Federal City of Sevastopol, two annexed Ukrainian regions that the United States does not recognize as part of Russia.=

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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 Duma elections of December 2003 gave a strong plurality (222 seats) to Putin’s United Russia Party, which gained three times as many votes as the second-place Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Between that election and mid-2006, United Russia gained 87 seats as delegates switched party allegiance. In 2006 United Russia had 309 seats; the Communist Party, 45 seats; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 35 seats; the Motherland bloc of regional parties, 29 seats; and the People’s Party, 12 seats. Independents held 18 seats, and two seats were vacant. Some 45 members of the Duma and six of the Federation Council were women. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Responsibilities of the Russian Legislature

The Russian houses have differing responsibilities; the Duma has the more powerful role of primary consideration of all legislation. Although the Federation Council has the power to review and force compromise on legislation, in practice its role has been primarily as a consultative and reviewing body. The Duma can vote no-confidence in a sitting government, but the president can ignore the vote and dissolve the Duma if a second such vote is taken within three months. Changes in the constitution require a two-thirds vote in the Duma. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

The Federation Council, as its name and composition implies, deals primarily with issues of concern to the subnational jurisdictions, such as adjustments to internal borders and decrees of the president establishing martial law or states of emergency. As the upper chamber, it also has responsibilities in confirming and removing the procurator general and confirming justices of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Superior Court of Arbitration, upon the recommendation of the president. The Federation Council also is entrusted with the final decision if the State Duma recommends removing the president from office. The constitution also directs that the Federation Council examine bills passed by the lower chamber dealing with budgetary, tax, and other fiscal measures, as well as issues dealing with war and peace and with treaty ratification. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

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. *

Structure of the Federal Assembly

The composition of the Federation Council was a matter of debate until shortly before the 1995 elections. The legislation that emerged in December 1995 over Federation Council objections clarified the constitution's language on the subject by providing ex officio council seats to the heads of local legislatures and administrations in each of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions, hence a total of 178 seats. As composed in 1996, the Federation Council included about fifty chief executives of subnational jurisdictions who had been appointed to their posts by Yeltsin during 1991-92, then won popular election directly to the body in December 1993. But the law of 1995 provided for popular elections of chief executives in all subnational jurisdictions, including those still governed by presidential appointees. The individuals chosen in those elections then would assume ex officio seats in the Federation Council. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Each legislative chamber elects a chairman to control the internal procedures of the chamber. The chambers also form committees and commissions to deal with particular types of issues. Unlike committees and commissions in previous Russian and Soviet parliaments, those operating under the 1993 constitution have significant responsibilities in devising legislation and conducting oversight. They prepare and evaluate draft laws, report on draft laws to their chambers, conduct hearings, and oversee implementation of the laws. As of early 1996, there were twenty-eight committees and several ad hoc commissions in the State Duma, and twelve committees and two commissions in the Federation Council. The Federation Council has established fewer committees because of the part-time status of its members, who also hold political office in the subnational jurisdictions. In 1996 most of the committees in both houses were retained in basic form from the previous parliament. According to internal procedure, no deputy may sit on more than one committee. By 1996 many State Duma committees had established subcommittees.

Committee positions are allocated when new parliaments are seated. The general policy calls for allocation of committee chairmanships and memberships among parties and factions roughly in proportion to the size of their representation. In 1994, however, Vladimir Zhirinovskiy's Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (Liberal'no-demokraticheskaya partiya Rossii — LDPR), which had won the second largest number of seats in the recent election, was denied all but one key chairmanship, that of the State Duma's Committee on Geopolitics.

Legislative Powers in Russia

In the consideration and disposition of most legislative matters, however, the Federation Council has less power than the State Duma. All bills, even those proposed by the Federation Council, must first be considered by the State Duma. If the Federation Council rejects a bill passed by the State Duma, the two chambers may form a conciliation commission to work out a compromise version of the legislation. The State Duma then votes on the compromise bill. If the State Duma objects to the proposals of the upper chamber in the conciliation process, it may vote by a two-thirds majority to send its version to the president for signature. The part-time character of the Federation Council's work, its less developed committee structure, and its lesser powers vis-à-vis the State Duma make it more a consultative and reviewing body than a law-making chamber. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Because the Federation Council initially included many regional administrators appointed by Yeltsin, that body often supported the president and objected to bills approved by the State Duma, which had more anti-Yeltsin deputies. The power of the upper chamber to consider bills passed by the lower chamber resulted in its disapproval of about one-half of such bills, necessitating concessions by the State Duma or votes to override upper-chamber objections. In February 1996, the heads of the two chambers pledged to try to break this habit, but wrangling appeared to intensify in the months that followed. *

The State Duma confirms the appointment of the prime minister, although it does not have the power to confirm Government ministers. The power to confirm or reject the prime minister is severely limited. According to the 1993 constitution, the State Duma must decide within one week to confirm or reject a candidate once the president has placed that person's name in nomination. If it rejects three candidates, the president is empowered to appoint a prime minister, dissolve the parliament, and schedule new legislative elections. *

The State Duma's power to force the resignation of the Government also is severely limited. It may express a vote of no-confidence in the Government by a majority vote of all members of the State Duma, but the president is allowed to disregard this vote. If, however, the State Duma repeats the no-confidence vote within three months, the president may dismiss the Government. But the likelihood of a second no-confidence vote is virtually precluded by the constitutional provision allowing the president to dissolve the State Duma rather than the Government in such a situation. The Government's position is further buttressed by another constitutional provision that allows the Government at any time to demand a vote of confidence from the State Duma; refusal is grounds for the president to dissolve the Duma. *

Russian Legislative Process

The Duma has little power to introduce legislation without the president's support but it can block legislation introduced by the president, who can get around that by making decrees. A bill needs the approval of the Duma and the Federation Council. A two third vote in the Duma can override a rejection of the Federation Council.

Draft laws may originate in either legislative chamber, or they may be submitted by the president, the Government, local legislatures, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, or the Superior Court of Arbitration. Draft laws are first considered in the State Duma. Upon adoption by a majority of the full State Duma membership, a draft law is considered by the Federation Council, which has fourteen days to place the bill on its calendar. Conciliation commissions are the prescribed procedure to work out differences in bills considered by both chambers. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

A constitutional provision dictating that draft laws dealing with revenues and expenditures may be considered "only when the Government's findings are known" substantially limits the Federal Assembly's control of state finances. However, the legislature may alter finance legislation submitted by the Government at a later time, a power that provides a degree of traditional legislative control over the purse. The two chambers of the legislature also have the power to override a presidential veto of legislation. The constitution provides a high hurdle for an override, however, requiring at least a two-thirds vote of the total number of members of both chambers. *

Putin’s Authoritarian Changes

Putin consolidated power by making authoritarian changes in line with his system of “managed democracy” and “vertical of power.” The December 2004 election for regional governors was scrapped. Instead the governors were selected by the president and approved by regional assemblies, which were largely loyal to the Kremlin. The West criticized the move as an erosion of democracy. Putin argued it was necessary for national unity. Rather than being upset many of the regional leaders praised the proposal. A force behind these changes was the Besland school massacre, which left hundreds of school children dead at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Putin also replaced direct elections for half the members of parliament with a party list system in which people voted for parties and the parties selected who would take the seats in parliament. Under this system parliament members were selected proportionally based on party lists compiled by the main parties, all of which were centered in Moscow and susceptible to Kremlin influence. This effectively made the Duma a rubber stamp body.

Other changes included banning coalitions between smaller parties by preventing them from merging their party lists and raising the minimum vote necessary for a party to enter from five percent to seven percent. For a political party to be officially registered it needed to have 50,000 members in each of Russia’s 89 provinces. No sector of the government was spared. The entire system of checks and balances was compromised if not undermined. Control seemed to be the central theme of the changes, and the fact that democracy was too messy and uncontrollable and had to be reigned in.

U.S. Senator John McCain has accused Putin of staging a “creeping coup” Putin said the changes were necessary to create a stable, multi-party system in Russia. “If no environment is created for the growth of the parties’ authority, we will never have a real multiparty system.” He added, it was necessary to create “parties that are capable of taking a real part in the political life of the country and providing for unified national interests.” On democracy, Putin said: “If by democracy one means dissolution of the state, then who needs democracy. Why is democracy needed? To make people’s lives better, to make them free. I don’t think there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

Duma Members

Members of both houses serve four-year terms. 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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Half the members of the Duma are elected from party lists. Parties that get at least five percent of the vote share 225 sears on a proportional basis. The other 225 seats are filled by individuals running from single-seat districts. Many of these have been independents. Under the party list system people vote for parties and the parties select who would take the seats in parliament. Members were selected proportionally based on party lists compiled by the main parties, all of which are centered in Moscow and susceptible to Kremlin influence. This effectively made the Duma a rubber stamp body.

Problems with the Duma

The Russian parliament has largely been viewed as an obstacle to reform and a haven for special interests, regionalism and Communists. Elections have traditionally been followed by rounds of horse trading in which party loyalty was not necessarily high priory. Members have switched to their opponent’s party if it served their needs and ambitions.

In the mid 1990s there were fistfights in the chamber floor, all night open bar parties, and drunken brawls in the cafeteria. Security guards had to insist that some deputies check their weapons before the entered the legislature. There were fistfights between Communists and Liberals. In June 1995, a legislator dressed in red sunglasses and a Megadeath T-shirt brandished a toy gun during a debate of a no confidence vote. Around that time votes in the Duma were reportedly sold for $30,000 a piece.

In 1997, Sergei Semyonov, a deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's Committee for Women, Family and Youth, proposed making a law that made polygamy legal. Semyonov lived with three women that he called his wives. He once said polygamy would improve the "quality of the population" since "only the fittest will be able to have several wives—it will be a form of natural selection."

In his proposed bill, Semyonov wrote a man with more than one wife must "support all his women financially and emotionally, satisfy them physically, treat them with more respect than they are treated now, and not let them work under hazardous conditions." Failure to meet any of these conditions was ground for divorce and financial compensation.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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