| In the wake of "serious social resonance," the
State Duma's United Russia majority backpedaled from outright support of
a bill banning rallies in many public places Friday, just two days after
voting in favor of it.
"The draft needs a considerable amount of additional work,"
Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov conceded Friday.
The bill would outlaw protests near most public buildings -- from government
offices to schools and concert halls -- as well as embassies, sensitive
industrial facilities, main streets, railroads and pipelines.
Critics from the left and right have castigated the bill as a violation
of democratic norms and an attempt to stifle freedom of expression. They
also accused the bill's pro-Kremlin backers of trying to insulate themselves
from unpleasant criticism by keeping protesters far from sight.
Calling the question of permitted venues "the hottest debate,"
Gryzlov said amendments would be made to allow protests outside seats
of state power except presidential residences, which will remain off limits.
"The bill passed Wednesday ... created a rather serious social
resonance," said Gryzlov, who also heads the United Russia faction.
"It will be amended before the second reading," he said.
The second reading of the bill is to take place April 28, the same day
as a second reading of amendments to the Criminal Code that would toughen
punishments for terrorism.
Both pieces of legislation also must pass a third reading and win the
support of the Federation Council before the president can sign them into
Gryzlov noted that Pavel Krasheninnikov, United Russia deputy and chairman
of the Duma's Legislation Committee, had drawn up amendments as early
as Thursday, the day after 293 United Russia deputies voted in favor of
the bill in its first reading. (Of the remainder of United Russia's 305
deputies, one abstained, and 11 did not vote.)
Members of the minority Communist and nationalist parties, without exception,
voted against the bill, with some calling it an attack on workers and
organized labor and others seeing it as a pre-emptive move by United Russia
to defend its lock on Duma control from political challengers in the 2007
campaign season, since public meetings are a key means of reaching voters.
Krasheninnikov, formerly of the liberal Union of Right Forces party,
told Nezavisimaya Gazeta in an interview published Friday that much of
the outcry from the bill's opponents amounted to "overhyping the
circumstances," though he agreed with them, in part. Limitations
on events outside administrative buildings "strike me as illogical
and illegal," he said.
Sergei Mitrokhin, former
Yabloko deputy, took issue with other aspects of the bill in a debate
Friday night on Ekho Moskvy radio, specifically provisions that would
let police break up meetings they deem to violate "moral norms."
"It's just the latest bill allowing a bureaucrat to mock people
who take to the street," he said.
Krasheninnikov told the newspaper he supported the bill because he believed
a nationwide standard was needed to replace the current legal framework,
which leaves much of the decision of what to allow in the hands of local
Deputy Justice Minister Yevgeny Sidorenko said in an interview published
in Vremya Novostei on Friday that the bill, which was drafted by his ministry,
was "aimed at protecting the rights and interests of those parties
not participating in these events."
Those third parties, Krasheninnikov said, include people who are late
to work due to traffic jams caused by protests on major streets.
Krasheninnikov cited protests organized by Communist supporters in June
2001 outside the Duma building, where deputies were considering legislation
to allow the sale of land.
"The entire downtown in fact was blocked. Even those citizens who
had no idea that deputies were passing the Land Code were in fact victims
of this," he said.
If highways remain blacklisted in future versions of the bill, this
could create a loophole blocking protests outside the Duma, since the
Duma is located on Okhotny Ryad, a multilane thoroughfare.
There should be fewer cases of backtracking on bills in the future thanks
to a recent Duma decision, highlighted Friday by Gryzlov, to send all
bills through a preliminary "zero reading" by experts who will
make drafts "cleaner" before they are brought to the floor.
the original at
Freedom of Speech
and Media Law in Russia