Putin Begins Electoral Reform Process

President Vladimir Putin (search) put sweeping political reforms in motion Monday, sending to Russia's parliament a bill on eliminating the popular election of regional governors and district parliament races.

Putin has explained the proposal is a necessary response to the Beslan (search) school hostage seizure and other terror attacks, saying a strong federal government is needed to fend off threats. His opponents describe the reform as a deadly blow to Russia's fledgling democracy.

The motion would abolish popular elections of regional governors, who instead would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures — a move critics said would further strengthen an authoritarian streak in the Kremlin's policy. Also under the bill, all elections to parliament would be by party lists.

Putin told a Cabinet session Monday that he would submit the bill to the lower house, the State Duma, later in the day. With the Kremlin-directed United Russia party having more than 300 seats in the 450-seat Duma, the house is expected to quickly rubber-stamp the proposal.

Duma deputy speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Monday that the house would "immediately start working on the bill," which he said was a "timely and necessary" measure to strengthen the government, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Putin cast his proposal as a necessary response to the school hostage seizure, twin Russian plane bombings and a homicide attack near a Moscow subway station, which together killed more than 430 people.

His opponents have said the proposed abolition of gubernatorial elections and district parliament races could further weaken public controls over the inefficient and corrupt government.

Former President Boris Yeltsin (search), who named Putin prime minister and then acting president, has expressed concern about the proposed changes in a rare public criticism of his successor.

Putin has argued that the proposals don't represent backtracking on democracy. He said the United States and other countries had seriously reformed their systems following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and that Russia was intent on providing its citizens both stability and democracy.

Putin also has called for other legal changes to toughen punishment for terror-related crimes, tighten residence registration rules and expand the powers of law-enforcement agencies. The parliament is working out corresponding legislation.

On Monday, a group of current and former lawmakers and opposition leaders filed a lawsuit on Monday asking Russia's Supreme Court to annul the country's most recent parliamentary elections, saying the main Kremlin-backed party enjoyed an unfair edge in media coverage and deceived voters about politicians running on its ticket.

An annulment of December's election results would mean that new parliamentary elections would have to be held, but such ruling is considered next to impossible in Russia, where courts have staunchly supported the government against political opponents.

The lawmakers who filed the lawsuit indicated they didn't expect to win the case, but wanted to attract public attention to the issue. "Our main goal is to go through all the instances and demonstrate that Russia does not have an independent judiciary and in the end file suit before the European Court of Human Rights," said Irina Khakamada, a former presidential candidate.

The Kremlin-directed United Russia party swept the December vote, winning more than 300 seats in the 450-seat lower house, the State Duma, while Russia's top liberal parties failed to clear the minimum 5 percent of votes. Foreign observers criticized the election as unfair and a setback for democracy.