Russian lawmakers endorse overhaul

Duma votes for Putin plan to end election of regional leaders, appoint them


MOSCOW - Russia's lower house of parliament took its first step yesterday toward adopting President Vladimir V. Putin's overhaul of the country's political system, despite signs of popular dissent, particularly in regions distant from the capital.

After demonstrators protested the changes at a second day of rallies in Moscow, the Duma voted overwhelmingly to accept a core part of Putin's proposals: replacing popular elections of governors and other leaders of Russia's 89 regions with Kremlin appointments.

Under Russian law, legislation must pass three votes, or readings, before moving to the upper house, the Federation Council, which, like the lower house, is dominated by Putin loyalists.

A second vote, where most amendments are made, is expected next month.

Although the proposal on appointing regional leaders passed easily in its first reading, with 365 deputies in favor and 64 against, opponents vowed to continue challenging it. Leaders of the Communist Party promised to file suit, while some regional assemblies have publicly called for amendments that would significantly weaken its main provisions.

"We are not cattle," Irina M. Khakamada, a liberal leader who unsuccessfully challenged Putin's re-election in March, told hundreds of demonstrators who gathered near parliament before the vote, according to Ekho Moskvy radio. The rally drew members of several opposition parties, including some parliamentary deputies, who gathered in a rare display of unity to defend voter rights.

The spirited public debate surrounding Putin's plans - unusual in itself, given the Kremlin's absolute dominance of politics here - suggested a watershed in Russia's history. Thirteen years after the Soviet Union's collapse, some of the foundations of the country's still-fresh experience with independence and democracy are being reconsidered.

In a separate step, heavy with symbolism, a parliamentary committee introduced legislation to abolish the national holiday that commemorates the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, called the Day of Accord and Reconciliation. A draft of the legislation says Russia needs to rethink holidays with an "obsolete ideological basis."

The holiday, now celebrated on Nov. 7, based on the Georgian calendar adopted by Soviet Union after the revolution, "deals with the Soviet period of Russian history that, to this or that extent, is a source of tension in society," the draft says.

It would be replaced with a holiday, Nov. 4, to mark the liberation of Moscow from Polish domination in 1612.

At a time when opponents are denouncing Putin's political restructuring as unconstitutional, the proposed legislation would also abolish Constitution Day, which is celebrated on Dec. 12.

Putin ordered the changes to the political system in the wake of the terrorist siege of Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, which ended Sept. 3. At least 330 hostages died, half of them schoolchildren, according to the official count.

Putin and his allies have justified the proposals, which would also end district elections for half of parliament's 450 seats, by arguing that they would strengthen executive power across a vast and at times unruly country.

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