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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputies Kick Off Year With A Protest

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The State Duma's spring session got a rocky start Wednesday when most of the liberal lawmakers boycotted the first few minutes of the opening meeting.

The deputies said they decided not to be present as the national anthem was played — a traditional part of the first session. At the end of last year, parliament reinstated the Soviet-era melody, much to the chagrin of the Yabloko and Union of Right Forces, or SPS, factions.

Since the law requires people to stand for the national anthem, most of the liberal deputies opted to avoid a conflict between the law and their consciences by being absent.

"We can defend our interests while a law is being passed, but once it is passed, we believe it should be carried out," said Pavel Krasheninnikov, a leading member of SPS who once served as justice minister.

But two SPS members took the civil-disobedience route. Sergei Kovalyov and Yuly Rybakov opted to attend the session, but sat throughout the anthem.

When it comes to the business of passing laws, the spring's agenda is likely to be just as controversial as the anthem. Among the 613 bills on the Duma's plate are a handful of politically charged proposals, including laws regulating political parties, land ownership and labor relations.

The Duma is expected to discuss the law on parties by the end of the month. The bill was introduced by President Vladimir Putin and would put severe limitations on parties, slashing their number as a result.

The proposal is expected to pass despite opposition from many Yabloko and SPS members and their allies. Two competing bills have been introduced.

Independent Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, an author of one of the alternative bills, said Putin's version, which was written by the Central Elections Committee, would make it virtually impossible to create new parties.

"I characterize it as a monopoly agreement, like a cartel divvying up the market for parties," Ryzhkov said in an interview in late December on NTV television. "The idea behind our bill is to keep this market open for citizens, open for society."

Deputy Ryzhkov characterized the political parties restriction bill as a monopoly deal.

The presidential administration is expected to put a proposed Land Code before the Duma this year. Such a code would allow the sale and purchase of land — a controversial issue the two previous Dumas were unable to solve. But, according to media reports, the proposal will not cover agricultural land, the main sticking point for Communists and Agrarians.

The new Labor Code — which was on the government's 2000 agenda but was postponed in the face of fierce union opposition — is expected to be discussed in June. Meanwhile, a conciliatory commission made up of government officials, deputies and union officials is to hammer out a compromise.

Work on yet another controversial code — that regulating criminal procedure — is also set to heat up this year. Deputy Yelena Mizulina, who is supervising the revision of the code, has said she hopes the code, which was approved in the first reading in 1997, will be passed and signed into law by the end of the year.

Advocates of judicial reform have slammed the draft as draconian. Sergei Pashin, the former head of the department on judicial reform in the presidential administration, said last month that the proposed code does not provide equal rights to the defense and the prosecution, treats minors like "small adults," and does not adequately protect the rights of victims.

With a tense season ahead, it's no surprise some deputies are reaching for their cigarettes, proposing the Duma repeal a self-imposed ban on smoking in the building.

No longer permitted to smoke in stairwells since the ban was passed in June, many deputies and staff members have taken to smoking in their offices and in the lavatories. A compromise bill has been introduced that would allow smoking in strictly defined areas.