Russian lawmakers slap big sanctions on protesters

President Vladimir Putin targeted those who dare oppose him Tuesday, introducing draconian new fines for protesters and handing out Kremlin jobs to widely detested lieutenants despite the public anger they have generated.

A new law introducing a 200-fold increase in fines for taking part in unsanctioned protests was given preliminary approval by the Kremlin-controlled lower house, setting the stage for toughening Putin's crackdown on dissent.

Opposition lawmakers denounced the new fines as an attempt to stifle criticism, warning that it would fuel broad outrage and destabilize Russia by depriving the public of a way to express discontent. Some warned that it may stop the middle class from protesting in Moscow but would fail to stem likely outbursts of anger against a series of planned reforms that would hike energy prices and cut social benefits.

Sergei Mironov, the leader of the opposition Just Russia party, said his faction was boycotting the hearings of the "odious" bill intended to "shut the people's mouth."

Police on Tuesday quickly rounded up several members of the liberal Yabloko party who attempted to protest the new bill outside parliament. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin told reporters before being detained by police that the law was intended to intimidate the opposition.

"A direct signal is being made by those in power: Sit down and keep quiet!" Mitrokhin said.

The lower house, dominated by Putin's United Russia party, voted 236-207 with one abstention to approve the bill in the first of three required readings.

Putin has toughened his stance against the opposition since winning a third term in March's election, rejecting a dialogue with its leaders and stonewalling their demands. Last week he gave a senior government job to a tank factory worker who had offered to come to Moscow with colleagues to help police break up anti-government protests.

Putin named his new Cabinet on Monday, retaining some key figures but dropping some of the most widely detested ministers, including Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, Health Minister Tatyana Golikova and Education Minister Andrei Fursenko.

But that didn't mean Nurgaliyev was out of work. Showing his contempt for opposition criticism, Putin appointed Nurgaliyev as an undersecretary to the Presidential Security Council and named several other former ministers as presidential advisers.

Nurgaliyev has faced massive public outrage over widespread torture and other abuses by police, while Golikova and Fursenko have been linked to the worsening state of the nation's health care and education systems.

Another longtime Putin aide, former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, was put in charge of Russia's largest oil company, the state-controlled Rosneft, while Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov got the same job in the Kremlin. Putin's fellow KGB veterans Sergei Ivanov and Nikolai Patrushev were respectively re-appointed as the Kremlin chief of staff and the head of the presidential Security Council.

Putin's re-election bid was challenged by massive demonstrations against his rule that drew up to 100,000 people in Moscow, but the protests have abated after the vote and the Kremlin has taken a harsher attitude toward political foes.

A demonstration of at least 20,000 people the day before Putin's May 7 inauguration turned into a fierce battle with police after some protesters tried to march on the Kremlin. Scores were injured in clashes and hundreds were detained as police chased opposition members around the Russian capital.

Putin's opponents sought to maintain momentum by holding a series of protests in downtown Moscow, but police quickly dispersed them.

In a move to rein in the opposition, the new bill raises fines for joining unsanctioned rallies from a maximum of 5,000 rubles ($160) now to 1,000,000 rubles ($32,250).

Its authors also suggested introducing a punishment for any mass public gathering even if it lacks the formal signs of a political protest. That was a clear response to the creative new demonstrations popping up in Moscow, where participants leave their slogans and posters at home and walk silently so their actions don't formally count as rallies.

One of the bill's authors, Alexander Sidyakin, said protest organizers should also be sentenced to public service. "They should be given brooms to clean the mess left after their violations," he said.

Communist lawmaker Valentin Romanov said during the debate in parliament that the Kremlin wants new sanctions against protesters in anticipation of anger against upcoming unpopular social reforms.

"It's a pre-emptive move preceding a rise in social protests across the country," he said.

Due to term limits, Putin spent four years in the premier's seat after already serving two consecutive terms as president from 2000 to 2008. Despite the title change he remained Russia's No. 1 leader all along. His protege, Dmitry Medvedev, stepped down to allow Putin to reclaim the presidency, receiving the premiership in exchange.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, speaking on Rossiya 24 television, described the former ministers given new jobs Tuesday in the Kremlin as the real Russian government, dismissing Medvedev's Cabinet as a decorative one.