Kremlin bill passes in parliament, but barely

The Russian parliament on Wednesday passed a Kremlin bill restoring gubernatorial elections, with opponents saying the new law will still allow the president to screen out undesirable candidates.

The 450-seat State Duma, the elected lower house, approved the bill with 237 votes, just above the simple majority required.

President Dmitry Medvedev submitted the bill in response to massive protests against his mentor Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the March election that gave Putin a third presidential term.

Putin had scrapped direct elections of provincial governors during his presidency as part of a systematic rollback of democratic freedoms.

While the president will no longer appoint Russia's governors, the new law will give him the right to "consult" with potential candidates or the parties nominating them.

Candidates will also have to receive formal backing from 5 to 10 percent of the members of local legislatures, depending on the region.

"It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for an opposition candidate to become governor," said Communist lawmaker Anatoly Lokot.

Yelena Mizulina of the leftist Just Russia party said the bill was a throwback to the Soviet era, when all candidates were approved by the Communist Party.

"The government's fear of people and direct elections lies in the foundation of that bill," she said.

The State Duma is dominated by the Kremlin party, United Russia, which holds a majority of the seats. Just Russia, while created by the Kremlin and led by a Putin ally, has recently joined the Communist Party in measured opposition.

The bill must still be approved by the upper house and signed by Medvedev, steps regarded as formalities.

Medvedev's reforms also include bills easing registration requirements for political parties and liberalizing election rules. Those steps have been welcomed by the opposition, but the next election to the national parliament is five years away.