Federal Assembly

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For most of the Soviet period, Russia's legislature was a ceremonial, rubber stamp body called the Supreme Soviet. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, however, Russia's legislative structures underwent dramatic reform, becoming an arena for competitive elections and debates on major policy issues.

From May 1990 until September 1993, the Russian legislature consisted of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) Congress of People's Deputies and a smaller body called the Supreme Soviet, which was the full-time working parliament. On September 21, 1993, President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the RSFSR Congress and Supreme Soviet after a protracted political confrontation with its members over constitutional and policy issues. He further decreed that elections to a new bicameral parliament called the Federal Assembly would be held in December 1993. This parliamentary structure was to be given constitutional status through a national referendum on a new constitution to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary elections. The elections and referendum took place on December 12, 1993, and on January 11, 1994, the newly elected deputies convened in Moscow for the opening of the new Federal Assembly.

The 1993 constitution provides for a mixed presidential-parliamentary system with a directly elected president and a prime minister approved by parliament. The lower chamber of the bicameral Federal Assembly is called the State Duma, and the upper chamber is the Federation Council. The president appoints the prime minister, and the Duma votes whether to confirm the appointment. The president has wide legislative powers, including the powers of veto and decree. Decrees (ukazy ) carry the force of law, but may not violate existing law. A decree remains in effect until the parliament enacts legislation that supersedes it. The Federal Assembly may override a presidential veto by a two-thirds vote of each chamber.

The Duma may deny the government its confidence. Upon the first vote of no confidence in the government, the president may ignore the parliament's action. But the president must either dismiss the government or dissolve the Duma if the Duma votes no confidence a second time within three months. The prime minister may submit a motion of confidence to the Duma, which, if defeated by the Duma, leads the president to decide whether to dismiss the government or dissolve the Duma.

The president may not dissolve the Duma within one year of its election, nor during a state of emergency or national state of martial law, nor within six months of a presidential election. Parliament does have the right to remove the president by impeachment, but the constitution requires that both chambers, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court concur with the charges.

Legislation originates in the Duma and, if passed, is sent to the Federation Council. If the Federation Council approves the legislation or fails to examine it within fourteen days, the legislation is sent to the president to be signed. If the Federation Council rejects the legislation, the two houses may form a commission to resolve differences. However, the Duma may override a Federation Council veto by a two-thirds vote. Following final action by the Federal Assembly, legislation is sent to the president, who must sign or veto the legislation.


The electoral system used in the December 1993 Duma elections was put into effect by presidential decree, but its essential features have been preserved under subsequent legislation. Duma elections employ a mixed system of proportional representation and single-member districts. Half of the Duma's 450 seats are allocated proportionately to registered parties that receive at least five percent of the vote in a single nationwide electoral district. The other 225 deputies are elected in single-round plurality elections in single-member districts.

Unlike the Duma, the Federation Council has changed significantly in the manner in which its members are chosen. The Constitution provides that two individuals from each of Russia's eightynine constituent territorial subjects, representing the legislative and executive branches of each region, are to be chosen as members of the Federation Council. The membership of the 19941995 chamber was chosen by popular election. A 1995 law provided, however, that thereafter the two members would be the head of the executive branch and the head of the legislature in each territorial subject. Therefore the members of the Federation Council were part-time members of the chamber and full-time officials in their home regions. Typically they traveled to Moscow for a few days every month for brief parliamentary sessions.

During the summer of 2000, President Vladimir Putin again changed the method for selecting Federation Chamber members. Under the new law he sponsored, all members were to be full-time delegates chosen by the chief executive officers and the legislative assemblies of the eighty-nine territorial subjects. The members chosen do not need to reside in the region sending them, allowing regions to send prominent businesspeople, retired military officers, and influential politicians as their representatives. The changeover was complete by the end of 2001.

Most observers believe that the system for selecting members of the Federation Council is likely to evolve further. Many advocate holding direct elections of senators, as in the United States. One difficulty with this is the constitutional provision stipulating that the two senators from each region represent the executive and legislative branches.

legislative-executive relations

Over the 19941995 and 19961999 terms of the State Duma, no party or coalition held a clear majority. However, in both Dumas, deputies opposed to President Yeltsin held a majority. Vetoes were frequent, and in 1999 the Duma came within fourteen votes of passing a motion to remove Yeltsin through impeachment. Nonetheless, behind-thescenes bargaining over legislation was the norm. The chairman of the Duma in 1994 and 1995, Ivan Rybkin, was a communist but took a cooperative approach to his dealings with the executive branch, as did his successor as chairman, Gennady Seleznev, also a communist. On some highly contentious issues, such as the privatization of land, the branches were deadlocked. On many other issues, however, president and parliament were able to reach agreement. Overall, the president eventually signed about three-quarters of the laws passed by the Duma between 1994 and 1999.

The December 1999 parliamentary election and President Yeltsin's subsequent resignation resulted in a substantial change in legislative-executive relations. The Duma that convened in January 2000 was far friendlier to the president, and President Putin proved to be skillful in managing his relations with the Duma. By mid-2001 a coalition of four pro-Kremlin political factions had come to dominate the chamber, and the president was successful in passing an ambitious reform agenda. Much legislation that had been stalled under Yeltsin, including land privatization, cleared both chambers. So did many other laws, including a new Labor Code, pension reform, simplified rules for business licensing and regulation, and ratification of the START-II treaty.

internal organization

In the Duma, political factions exercise substantial collective power over agenda-setting, organization, and procedures. The chamber's steering body is the Council of the Duma, which is made up of the leaders of each of the party factions (i.e., each party clearing the five percent threshold in the party list vote) as well as the heads of each organized deputy group possessing at least thirty-five members. The Council of the Duma forges the political compromises needed to reach agreement on important legislation. In addition, the leaders of the factions decide among themselves on the distribution of chairpersonships of the standing committees. Committee chairpersonships are distributed in rough proportion to factional strength, although under Putin, pro-presidential factions control the most influential committees. The Duma is not divided into "majority" and "minority" coalitions, although some evolution in that direction began in 2001.

The Federation Council lacks a system of political factions and is organized around its chairman and standing committees. The 2000 reform has led to significant changes in the way the chamber operates. A pro-Putin caucus, called "Federation," with approximately one hundred members, came to dominate the legislative proceedings in 2001. One of its members, a Putin ally named Sergei Mironov, was elected chairman of the chamber in December 2001. President Putin's legislative reforms began to sail through the chamber with almost no opposition. "Federation" was dissolved in January 2002, but the chamber remained strongly supportive of President Putin's program.

the federal assembly in perspective

The 1993 constitution gives the president preponderant power in the political system. However, the electoral system that uses party-list voting for half the seats in the Duma, combined with the president's interest in seeking legislative legitimacy for his policy agenda, has allowed the parliament to exercise greater influence than President Yeltsin had originally anticipated. During his first two years, President Putin succeeded in marginalizing political opposition in both chambers and securing parliament's support for his legislative program, which included measures strengthening the central government vis-à-vis the regions and laws intended to improve the climate for investors and entrepreneurs. However, each chamber has developed a capacity for deliberation and decision making that may make parliament a more effective counter-weight to future presidents. Therefore it is likely that the role of the Federal Assembly in the political system will continue to evolve.

See also: congress of people's deputies; duma; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; putin, vladimir vladimirovich; supreme soviet; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich


Chaisty, Paul. (2001). "Legislative Politics in Russia." In Contemporary Russian Politics: A Reader, ed. Archie Brown. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

McFaul, Michael. (2001). Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Remington, Thomas F. (2001). The Russian Parliament: Institutional Evolution in a Transitional Regime, 19891999. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smith, Steven, and Remington, Thomas F. (2001) The Politics of Institutional Choice: Formation of the Russian State Duma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thomas F. Remington

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Federal Assembly

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Federal Assembly