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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Self-Rule Bills Clear First Hurdle in Duma

After some four hours of debate, the State Duma on Friday gave preliminary approval to two Kremlin-backed bills introducing sweeping reforms to local and regional government.

The plan, which would more than double the existing number of municipalities, has been touted by the Kremlin as a way of bringing government closer to the people, making it more accountable and ensuring that it sticks to its fiscal promises.

The new legislation calls for the introduction of a two-tier system of municipal government and a rigid delineation of powers among federal, regional and local authorities. It also requires the allocation of specifically earmarked funds for any financial obligations handed down to municipal governments from the federal or regional level, such as for education and health care.

The bills' main author, presidential deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, told lawmakers that part of the reform's aim is to ensure that regional and local authorities abide by their budgets and fund everything they are supposed to. If they don't, federal authorities will have the right to take over certain functions of regional governments, and the regions, in turn, will be allowed to take over some of the responsibilities of municipal authorities.

"Such a mechanism is necessary if the mechanism of regions' political responsibility for budget policy does not work," Kozak said in televised remarks.

Although the bills passed on first reading with a large margin -- vote counts of 269-128 and 269-139 -- they stirred up plenty of controversy. Opinion was split in both Duma committees in charge of evaluating the legislation.

Vladimir Lysenko, a member of the Russia's Regions group and deputy chairman of the federative affairs committee, staunchly opposed the bills, saying that federal authorities were trying to further centralize power and to concentrate all the major sources of budget revenue in their own hands.

The Communist bloc and most deputies from the liberal Union of Right Forces party, or SPS, voted against the reform, saying it would lead to a costly and chaotic transition period.

"Let's first solve our larger social problems, like maintenance and utilities, and only then spend huge amounts of money on building a European model of local self-government," SPS leader Boris Nemtsov told Rossia television.

Even the bills' supporters said major amendments would be required before the second reading.

After approving the legislation, the Duma appealed to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to submit amendments to the federal budget and Tax Code by April 1, news agencies reported.

If passed by both houses and signed into law, the reform would take effect in 2005.