On Wednesday, deputies in Russia's State Duma gave initial approval to a government bill that could severely limit Russians' right to hold public demonstrations.
The bill, submitted by the Justice Ministry, passed its first reading by 294 votes to 137, thanks to support from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia faction, which controls two-thirds of the seats in the chamber.
The legislation would ban citizens from holding protest pickets or rallies on or near property belonging to the presidential administration, as well as federal, regional, or local government buildings. In addition, demonstrators will be blocked from assembling on public-access roads or highways and bridges as well as near oil installations or foreign embassies and international organizations.
Under current regulations, demonstrators must notify police of their plans in advance but are free to meet where they wish. But the new legislation would allow the authorities to assign picketers specific locations.
Vladimir Vasiliev, head of the Duma's Security Committee, told journalists the law is necessary and is based on the need to ensure public safety. "There are places where any gathering of people presents a big danger in terms of public safety," he said. "I know this as a professional. These issues have to be regulated. And today there is no mechanism to do this. This is what the issue is about."
But opponents of the legislation say it directly contravenes Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to free assembly. They say that the Kremlin, having won control of the legislature and the media is now trying to undermine yet another pillar of democracy: the right of citizens to petition, protest and be heard by the authorities. Some 30 activists of the liberal Yabloko party demonstrated yesterday in Moscow against the bill, holding aloft banners reading "Respect the Constitution!"
Ironically, Communist Party deputies were among the loudest critics of the bill, as Deputy Sergei Reshulskii explained. "We voted unanimously against," he said. "I must emphasize once again that this bill was passed only with the votes of the Unified Russian faction plus one independent legislator. With these votes, a police regime is being introduced in our country."
Civil rights lawyer Boris Zolotukhin does not go that far. But he told RFE/RL that in his judgment, the bill does contravene the constitution. Russian law does provide for curtailing the basic right to assembly, but only in very limited cases. Any blanket law such as the one initially approved by the Duma could be challenged in court.
"There is Article 55 of the constitution, which foresees cases when constitutional rights may be abrogated. But the third paragraph of this article says that the rights and freedoms of citizens may be curtailed by federal laws only to the extent essential for the defense of the [country's] basic constitutional order, public morality, public health and the legal interests of other citizens. And moving demonstrations or pickets to a more distant location or banning them altogether from the proximity of government buildings, etc. [has] nothing to do with safeguarding the country's basic constitutional order, public morality or other conditions set out in Article 55 of the constitution. So I believe that the bill, as passed in its first reading by the Duma, limits citizens' constitutional rights." Zolotukhin said.
If the legislation is given final approval by the Duma and Federation Council and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin, Yabloko supporters say they will ask the country's Constitutional Court to strike it down.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)