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Economy Dominates Russian Parliament's First Post-Election Session - 2004-01-16


The lower house of Russia's parliament, the Duma, has held its first working session since last month's elections. The economy topped the agenda, with a speech by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Prime Minister Kasyanov opened the Duma session, telling the assembled deputies that Russia's economic growth was strong throughout 2003, and should continue this year.

He said the long-term aim is to double Russia's gross domestic product within 10 years, a goal that President Vladimir Putin has set as a priority.

However, the prime minister reminded the Duma, which is dominated by pro-Kremlin parties, that not all Russians are benefiting from the economic growth. He said close to 30 million Russians live below the poverty line, and the Duma must work to change that.

He called for more efficiency and openness in the legislative process.

Mr. Kasyanov told the legislators they must not create a secret or private atmosphere at the parliament, and that they should take all opinions into consideration as they deal with issues.

Most of the positive economic news Russia has enjoyed in the past year is based on the high price of oil, which remains Russia's primary export product.

The prime minister said the government might seek to raise the excess-profits tax on oil, but that these would not be large increases.

The prime minister's appearance comes amid indications that, as a veteran politician who disagrees with some of President Putin's policies, he may not hold his post much longer, now that the political landscape in Russia has been radically altered by last month's parliamentary elections.

Mr. Kasyanov was speaking to a legislature that is controlled by United Russia, the party created as a support vehicle for President Putin.

United Russia holds more than 300 of the 450 seats in the Duma, meaning that laws can be passed without the need to forge interparty compromises.

Bargaining over legislation was a hallmark of past Dumas, in which the Communist party and other opposition forces had a strong presence.

But the election cut the Communists' support in half, and virtually wiped out two small liberal parties.

A sign of the new order came when the new Duma speaker, who is also United Russia's leader, ruled that almost all the time allotted for questions would go to United Russia deputies.

This provoked a strong protest from the Communists.

Mr. Kasyanov is the last major government figure who dates from the era of former President Boris Yeltsin, and he has criticized some policies promoted by President Putin.

These include the legal assault on the huge Yukos oil company and the jailing of the former Yukos chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The case has raised questions about Russia's commitment to private ownership and a possible increase in state control of business.

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