MOSCOW – The Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament on Tuesday rammed through a harsh bill that raises fines 150-fold for people taking part in unsanctioned rallies, a move aimed at discouraging the opposition from challenging President Vladimir Putin.
The bill would jack up fines from the current 2,000 rubles to 300,000 rubles ($9,000), and comes after a series of massive protests that have reflected growing public frustration with Putin's 12-year rule. The potential punishment is more severe than for many other crimes, including even violations in the storage of nuclear materials.
The opposition factions in the lower house, the State Duma, put forward several hundred amendments in an unprecedented attempt to stymie the bill's passage, reflecting a new willingness to stand up to the Kremlin.
But members of the Kremlin's majority United Russia party voted the amendments down one by one during a marathon session that lasted nearly six extra hours and ended just before midnight. United Russia then used its majority in the 450 seat parliament to approve the bill in the second and third readings. The final vote was 241-147.
The Kremlin wants the new bill to become law by next Tuesday when the opposition plans a major protest in Moscow. The bill also will require approval by the upper house and Putin's signature, but both steps are formalities.
Since returning to the presidency in May, Putin has toughened his line toward the opposition, whose protests over the winter drew up to 100,000 in an unprecedented challenge to his rule. Due to term limits, Putin spent four years in the prime minister's seat after already serving two consecutive terms as president from 2000 to 2008.
He recently has spoken in support of the bill, saying, "We must shield our people from radical actions."
Russian authorities routinely deny permission for opposition rallies or offer rally organizers venues away from the city center.
Sergei Mironov, the leader of the Fair Russia opposition faction, said the bill was a "spit in the face of the Russian people."
"This odious bill is an attempt to scare the people and shut their mouth," he said before leading his faction out of the session hall before the final vote.
He and other opposition leaders warned that the law would exacerbate tensions in Russian society and leave the public with no free outlet for discontent.
"In the past, tightening the screws in Russia has only caused bloodshed. This is a sure path to a civil war," Gennady Gudkov of Fair Russia faction told the house. "You're assuming responsibility for the country's future and pushing it toward a crisis, collapse and bloodshed."
Fair Russia and the Communists submitted more than 400 amendments to the proposed bill to slow down its passage and raise public awareness about the legislation.
"It will destroy the social peace and deepen the divide in the society," said Anatoly Lokot of the Communist Party. "Instead of a dialogue you are offering a big stick."
Sergei Ivanov of the nationalist Liberal-Democratic Party, which usually votes along with Kremlin wishes, said its members opposed the bill.
"It was the worst day in the history of the State Duma," he said. "The State Duma hasn't yet seen such a shame."
Several dozen opposition activists, including the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, were detained Tuesday morning outside the State Duma for holding an unsanctioned gathering. Some were released shortly afterward.
The bill would see maximum fines for taking part in unsanctioned rallies rise from 2,000 rubles ($60) to 300,000 ($9,000). United Russia originally proposed an increase to a whopping 1.5 million rubles ($45,000).
For public officials, the maximum fine would be raised to 600,000 rubles ($18,000) from the current 50,000 rubles ($1,500).
In comparison, violating safety precautions in designing, building and using nuclear energy facilities that could cause danger or radioactive contagion is punishable by a fine of 200,000 rubles ($6,000).
The bill's authors also included similar punishments for any mass public gathering even if it lacks the formal signs of a political protest. That was a clear response to a series of recent creative demonstrations in Moscow, where participants left their slogans and posters at home and walked silently so that their actions don't formally count as rallies.
Maria Rybakova and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report from Moscow.