- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

MOSCOW — Russia’s lower house of parliament gave initial approval last week to a law making it far harder for small parties to make it into the Duma, a measure easily carried by the pro-Kremlin chamber.

The legislation sailed through on a growing wave of laws proposed by President Vladimir Putin that centralize the Kremlin’s authority and have prompted a growing outcry from some Western governments, Russian rights groups and even state officials.

The latest of the laws requires a party to raise its number of card-carrying members from 10,000 to 50,000 before it can be officially registered — complicating the procedure for liberal parties currently out of favor with Russian voters.

It was passed in the first of three required readings by a 360-to-52 vote, with two abstentions, in a 450-member chamber dominated by the United Russia party that rose to power on a simple mandate of support for Mr. Putin.

“They are trying to herd us [politicians] into a line — they are trying to get rid of the small fry,” said Communist Party member Valentin Romanov.

United Russia holds more than 300 seats — a two-thirds majority that can carry any legislation without debate in the chamber — and has on occasion proposed bills making it more difficult for smaller parties to qualify for election.

But even some members of United Russia, whose lawmakers usually vote in unison, criticized the law.

“We are approaching a state of decay,” said United Russia member Gennady Gudkov. “We are approaching a single-party state.

“Once we had a communist state, but millions of communists were unable to save [the Soviet Union] from falling apart,” said Mr. Gudkov, who added that, like the rest of United Russia, he voted in support of the measure.

Representing liberal forces, the smaller parties lost all but a handful of seats in last December’s elections, and have been trying to face down laws that limit Duma membership.

Under mounting criticism for his increasingly authoritarian rule, Mr. Putin said Wednesday he would take another look at separate legislation that eliminates Russian regional elections, having governors appointed by the Kremlin and approved by local legislatures.

“I will definitely give instructions … for our legal service to think through the measure once again,” Mr. Putin said in televised remarks.

The regional bill brought condemnation from several powerful governors, who repeatedly win re-election — running their regions as fiefdoms — but now face the possibility of losing their seats.

On the registration front, one of the main groups likely to face difficulties first is the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, which is trying to win party status while opposing the five-year war in separatist Chechnya.

“I fear that we will fail to raise 50,000 members,” the group’s recently elected leader, Valentina Melnikova, told Agence France-Presse.

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