MOSCOW, March 31 (UPI) -- Wednesday Russia's parliament -- the State Duma -- started the process of passing legislation that would significantly curtail public protests. If finally made law -- the bill must pass two more readings and be signed by President Vladimir Putin -- expressions of "street democracy" could become mostly illegal. Is this the democracy Putin promised to protect after winning a re-election landslide earlier this month?
The draft law passed in the first reading with 294 votes to 137 -- pro-Kremlin parties supporting the bill, with the opposition in dissent. As the State Duma was voting, protesters in front of the Parliament, including a prominent opposition figure, Sergei Mitrokhin of Yabloko, were arrested, which was probably illegal.
Under the bill, protesting in most public places, including official public buildings, will become illegal. The bill also mentions other areas where protest rallies will not be allowed: embassies, schools, kindergartens, stadiums, hospitals, international organizations, religious centers, concert halls, major roads, environmentally hazardous industrial sites and pipelines. The bill's coverage is thorough; huge swaths of where public life is experienced are threatened with a Kremlin gag order.
The purpose of controlling public spaces has been defended in the name of security. Public security is a very real issue in Russia. However, the authors of the bill -- most likely functionaries in the presidential administration -- have not even tried to explain how public protests threaten public security. Passage of such legislation now is even odd: Large public demonstrations have become rarity over the pass few years. At the same time, militant acts continue to be committed. Clearly, this is a miscorrelation of events.
What is the Kremlin afraid of? The Russian electorate overwhelming showed its support of Putin's Kremlin and his agenda during last December's parliamentary elections and Putin's re-election bid earlier this month. Most Russians also appear to appreciate Putin's heavy-handed use of the security forces to fight crime, large and small.
Most likely what is happening is the very familiar over-zealousness on the part of Putin's underlings. As with the draft law passed by the State Duma on media last year, but not signed by Putin, Kremlin engineers of the soul went too far. Attempting to be as thorough as possible, they failed to address issues in a practical or even constitutional sense. Domestic and international outcry finally forced Putin to correct his underlings' irrepressible desire to please the boss.
The darker side of this bill, which will become law if Putin supports it, sends a truly regrettable sign. Assuring that large business interests do not control the electronic media is understandable. The desire to win elections is also just as understandable. However, limiting freedom of expression in the streets of Russia only confirms what many believe to be a drift to more authoritarian rule. Public expression and national security should not be irreconcilable.
Free public protests can only add to national security. Greater security should be given to those who wish to express their constitutional right to dissent.
The Kremlin knows it has the public trust and respect of over 70 percent of the population. If it is afraid of the remaining 30 percent, then it is signaling that it is weak and afraid.
All is not lost. Putin can stop passage of the bill in it current form. Putin should stop the passage of this bill.
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the electronic newsletter on Russia "Untimely Thoughts" (untimely-thoughts.com).
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