| MOSCOW - In a move that could push protests largely out
of the public eye,
Russia's lower house of parliament gave preliminary approval Wednesday
law that would ban demonstrations from a wide range of places, including
areas close to highways, government buildings and diplomatic missions.
The government has cited security concerns to justify the measure, and
bill's backers have presented it as an effort to ensure the constitutional
right of citizens to hold assemblies, rallies and pickets. But critics
the action as a fresh blow to hopes for democracy in Russia, and a sign
that under President Vladimir V. Putin the country was moving in an
"This decision destroys one of the most important achievements
of the early
democratic years of Russia when the old Soviet law on mass rallies and
demonstrations was canceled," said Pavel Gutiontov, head of the Russian
Union of Journalists.
"What this law in fact achieves is for all practical purposes a
to hold any mass actions in the center of Moscow."
When pro-Kremlin parties won an overwhelming majority in the State Duma
December, many observers feared that such laws would be forthcoming,
Gutiontov said. The United Russia party, which backs Putin, holds more
two-thirds of the seats in the 450-seat lower house. The bill was approved
294 to 137.
A small group of protesters, numbering in the dozens, picketed outside
Duma to protest the action, carrying signs that read "We Demand Freedom
Assembly" and "No to a Police State."
The rally, carried out without advance approval from authorities, led
the brief detentions of Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy chairman of the liberal
Yabloko party, and at least two of his supporters at the site, Russia's
Interfax news agency reported.
Mitrokhin said later that he had spent about six hours in police custody
and in court before being released.
One of the people detained with him was fined about $3 and released,
another was released without a fine because she was a minor, he said.
Mitrokhin said that, as the organizer, he expected he might face a larger
fine, but that decision hadn't yet been made Wednesday.
Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow
think tank, said the action by the Duma "will certainly narrow down
limit the rights of citizens."
"This will contribute to the diminishing of the general democratic
atmosphere in the society," Markov said.
"But we shouldn't over-dramatize this. It is not a ban. It doesn't
completely prohibit people from holding mass rallies and pickets."
The action is part of a trend in many countries to tighten security
measures because of the threat of terrorism and recent protests by
anti-globalization activists that ended in violence, Markov said. But
also convenient for the United Russia party, he said, which "decided
make itself more comfortable and safer from public criticism."
Still, Markov did not put all blame for the measure on the pro-Putin
"To tell you the truth, the responsibility for this measure should
shared by our entire society, because in a decade of painful transition
from socialism to where we are now, we haven't learned to use the freedoms
and rights granted us in a proper way," he said.
"Now the people in general think that the more mass rallies and
demonstrations are held, the worse and more chaotic their life becomes.
is important to observe that there is no massive popular protest against
this measure," he added.
The bill states that rallies and protests cannot be held in "areas
direct proximity to the residences of the president of the Russian
Federation and buildings occupied by federal and state authorities, foreign
state offices, and international organizations that are under international
It also bans any such assemblies near bridges, highways, oil and gas
pipelines, hazardous-waste sites, hospitals, schools, religious centers,
concert halls and stadiums.
Organizers must notify authorities of planned events no more than 15
and no less than 10 days ahead of time. The authorities in turn can suggest
alternative locations, which must be done no later than five days before
Events can also be banned if their goals or forms violate the constitution
or "generally accepted norms of public morality," Interfax reported.
The bill must be approved two more times by the lower house and then
upper house, which has a record of easily approving measures supported
the Kremlin. It also requires Putin's signature.
Mitrokhin, of the Yabloko party, said the bill was a "flagrant
of the foundations of the constitutional structures of Russia," and
promised to fight it.
"This decision reverses one of the main provisions of the Russian
Constitution by 180 degrees," he said. "The constitution unequivocally
grants citizens a right to public gatherings and mass rallies, and a Duma
decision is not sufficient to take this right away from us."
Mitrokhin pledged to hold rallies, lobby legislators and appeal to Putin,
among other steps, in an effort to defeat the measure.
"We will complain to the Constitutional Court because it is clear
to us the
constitution was violated," he said. "We will go to international
need be. We will leave no stone unturned."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.