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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Rethinks Ban on Protests

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 law.

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 authorities.

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.