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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Public Chamber Left Toothless

The State Duma on Friday gave its approval in a second reading to President Vladimir Putin's proposed Public Chamber but dumped dozens of amendments aimed at making it more transparent, accountable and powerful, leaving the would-be watchdog practically toothless.

Instead, deputies voted 310-74 for a package of 100 out of 377 amendments approved by the Duma's Public and Religious Organizations Committee. The amendments mainly fine-tuned the wording of the Kremlin's initial draft, Interfax cited Committee Chairman Sergei Popov, a senior United Russia deputy, as saying.

Putin first proposed setting up the chamber in the wake of the attack on Beslan in September that left more than 330 people dead. He argued that the chamber should exercise civil control over law-enforcement bodies to ensure they combat terrorism effectively and act as a bridge between the authorities and the public.

But human rights groups and critics of the Kremlin have decried the chamber as mere window-dressing to legitimize the government's increasingly authoritarian policies.

"This is not a public but a presidential chamber," Interfax quoted Rodina Deputy Oleg Shein, who authored an amendment calling for the Federation Council to be able to appoint members, as saying. "It will be used as a cloak, so that it can be claimed that this or that bill was discussed with society before being adopted."

But calls to make the chamber less a tool of the authorities and more representative of society went unheeded, as United Russia deputies voted down amendments that would have given the chamber more power to hold the government accountable.

On the committee's recommendation, deputies rejected amendments that would have allowed the chamber to review existing laws, as well as to propose bills to parliament. Deputies also rejected a proposal that would have allowed the chamber to review presidential and government decrees.

Crucially, the chamber's resolutions will merely be recommendations, and will not carry the force of law.

The chamber will not participate in formulating the government's domestic or foreign policy, but will look instead only at how policy is implemented.

A proposal to allow chamber members to attend Cabinet meetings was rejected.

"The authors of the amendments strayed on to the president's turf and were immediately cut down by United Russia," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, an analyst with the Panorama think tank.

Deputies also voted down a series of amendments affecting the composition of the chamber.

Under the bill, the president will appoint 42 members, or one-third, of the chamber, who will then nominate another one-third from national nongovernmental organizations. These 84 members will then choose the final one-third of the chamber from regional NGOs at conferences in each federal district.

Deputies rejected a proposal to cut the number of presidential appointees to the chamber in half and to allow the Federation Council to appoint these 21 members.

Another rejected amendment called for the doubling of representation given to regional NGOs from 42 to 84 members, to give the country's 89 regions a better chance of being represented.

Deputies also threw out a proposal to work out and make public the criteria under which the president's nominees would choose national NGO representatives.

Another unsuccessful amendment called for regional NGO conferences to have a quorum of 50 NGOs, and for authorities to notify all NGOs in the federal district about the conference.

Without these amendments, the authorities will be able to easily manipulate the selection of candidates to the chamber by effectively excluding independent or opposition-minded NGOs, analysts said.

Lev Levinson, a political analyst with the Institute of Human Rights who co-authored several amendments, warned that the Public Chamber would lead to a schism within the NGO and human rights movements.

"NGOs will be divided into those that agree to cooperate with the authorities and play by their rules, and those who will not be accepted," he said. "Participation in the Public Chamber is a litmus test."

On Friday, the country's most prominent human rights group, Memorial, said that it would not participate in the Public Chamber. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the respected Moscow Helsinki Group, has also said that her group will not participate in the chamber.

Deputies also voted down proposals that would have restricted members to a maximum of three two-year terms in the chamber, and replaced at least one-third of the chamber every two years.

A proposal to allow an NGO the right of recall over its representative in the chamber if he or she were to violate the organization's rules was also rejected.

Also, in a move likely to further restrict the chamber's independence, deputies torpedoed amendments allowing it to draw up its own budget and have its chief of staff appointed by the Federation Council. Instead, the government will decide the chamber's budget and appoint its chief of staff.