Moscow, 17 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- To hear Kremlin supporters explain it, Russia's newly approved Public Chamber is proof of Russia's continuing commitment to democracy.
The State Duma on 16 March overwhelmingly approved the Kremlin-proposed bill on creating the new institution by 345 votes to 50.
"We are creating an additional opportunity for the development of civil society in the country," Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said after the bill's passage. "It is a completely public organization that will receive broad rights, according to the law. It will have the right to analyze Duma bills, especially bills that deal with constitutional issues. And it will have the right to check the work of the executive. I think that our voters, the citizens of Russian, can only welcome the passage of this law."
"There are independent deputies and opposition factions in the parliament already that criticize the government's actions. I think there will be attempts to [replace these opinions with those of] the Public Chamber, which will say: 'Everything's fine. There are just a few minor issues, which we will address and everything will be resolved.' "
But the reception from many civil society groups -- as well as independent deputies who voted against the bill -- has been frosty. The first objection regards the staffing of the chamber.
According to the bill, the Public Chamber will have 126 members. One-third will be selected by President Putin. The Kremlin says these individuals will be widely respected and recognized personalities who are neither politicians nor businesspeople. The second third will be nominated by civil society organizations. Once these first two-thirds have been installed, they will select the chamber's remaining 42 members.
Independent Duma Deputy Oksana Dmitrieva questions the need for what she sees as an alternative parliament staffed by nonpoliticians -- many of whom will be close to the Kremlin.
"It's a kind of smokescreen, perhaps to distract the public's attention from what is a real diminishment of democracy," Dmitrieva said. "In any case, there are independent deputies and opposition factions in the parliament already that criticize the government's actions. I think there will be attempts to [replace these opinions with those of] the Public Chamber, which will say: 'Everything's fine. There are just a few minor issues, which we will address and everything will be resolved.' In the public forum, real politicians will be replaced with some cultural representatives, who may be very worthy people in their fields but who are not professional politicians and who cannot effectively battle many of the government's and the president's extremely misguided actions."
While Dmitrieva worries that the Public Chamber might usurp parliament's role, some civil society representatives see the institution as a Kremlin attempt to bring the nongovernmental sector under direct control.
Lyudmila Akeseeva heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the country's leading human rights organizations. She notes Putin's recent moves to strengthen what the Kremlin calls the "vertical of power" throughout Russia -- meaning top-down, centralized administration. Putin has mostly concentrated on political institutions so far, but she fears Russia's burgeoning civil society is now being targeted.
"There has been this idea to organize civil society, which has already developed in our country, according to this vertical of power," Alekseeva said. "But this is a crazy idea. As soon as you organize civil society into this vertical of power, it stops being civil society. It becomes a pathetic appendage of the government. And it is destroyed."
Aleksei Simonov heads the Glasnost Defense Foundation, another prominent human rights organization. He stresses the Public Chamber's lack of real powers and says that an organization that gets both its budget and premises from the government cannot claim much independence, making it little more than a Potemkin village.
"I don't see the point of this institution," Simonov said. "What is a Public Chamber? It can listen to something and advise something. It is a state organ that is going to receive generous state funds [and] that will receive premises. As far as I understand, an entire museum is being cleared out to free up the space for this Public Chamber. This is all being done just to create the illusion of activity. What's the point?"
The Public Chamber is due to begin its work on 1 July and be fully staffed by the end of the year.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)