Outrage as Russia hikes protest fines

The Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament has rammed through a harsh bill that raises fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned rallies, in a move aimed at discouraging the opposition from challenging President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament has rammed through a harsh bill that raises fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned rallies, in a move aimed at discouraging the opposition from challenging President Vladimir Putin.

The bill would jack up fines from the current 2,000 rubles to 300,000 rubles (€7,200), and comes after a series of massive protests that have reflected growing public frustration with Mr Putin’s 12-year rule.

The potential punishment is more severe than for many other crimes, including even violations in the storage of nuclear materials.

The opposition factions in the lower house, the State Duma, put forward several hundred amendments in an unprecedented attempt to block the bill’s passage, reflecting a new willingness to stand up to the Kremlin.

But members of the Kremlin’s majority United Russia party voted the amendments down one by one during a marathon session that lasted nearly six extra hours and ended just before midnight.

United Russia then used its majority in the 450-seat parliament to approve the bill in the second and third readings. The final vote was 241-147.

The Kremlin wants the new bill to become law by next Tuesday when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow. The bill will also require approval by the upper house and Mr Putin’s signature, but both steps are formalities.

Since returning to the presidency in May, Mr Putin has toughened his line towards the opposition, whose protests over the winter drew up to 100,000 people in an unprecedented challenge to his rule.

Due to term limits, Mr Putin spent four years in the prime minister’s seat after already serving two consecutive terms as president from 2000 to 2008.

He recently has spoken in support of the bill, saying: “We must shield our people from radical actions.”

Russian authorities routinely deny permission for opposition rallies or offer rally organisers venues away from the city centre.

Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Fair Russia opposition faction, said the bill was a “spit in the face of the Russian people”.

“This odious bill is an attempt to scare the people and shut their mouth,” he said before leading his faction out of the session hall before the final vote.

He and other opposition leaders warned that the law would exacerbate tensions in Russian society and leave the public with no free outlet for discontent.

“In the past, tightening the screws in Russia has only caused bloodshed. This is a sure path to a civil war,” Gennady Gudkov of Fair Russia told the house.

“You’re assuming responsibility for the country’s future and pushing it toward a crisis, collapse and bloodshed.”

Fair Russia and the Communists submitted more than 400 amendments to the proposed bill to slow down its passage and raise public awareness about the legislation.

“It will destroy the social peace and deepen the divide in the society,” said Anatoly Lokot of the Communist Party. “Instead of a dialogue you are offering a big stick.”

Sergei Ivanov of the nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party, which usually votes along with Kremlin wishes, said its members opposed the bill.

“It was the worst day in the history of the State Duma,” he said. “The State Duma hasn’t yet seen such a shame.”

Several dozen opposition activists, including the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, were detained yesterday morning outside the State Duma for holding an unsanctioned gathering. Some were released shortly afterwards.

Russia's ex-deputy prime minister and a close ally of Mr Putin said that the bill is unconstitutional.

Alexei Kudrin, who joined the opposition movement last winter, said in a statement on his website that the bill violates a constitutional right of assembly.

He urged a review of the bill.

The Kremlin wants the new bill to become law by next Tuesday when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow.

The bill also will require approval by the upper house and Mr Putin’s signature.

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