MOSCOW -- The Kremlin-controlled upper house of Russia's parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial measure that imposes stiff fines on protests that don't match the government's tight rules.
The bill, which President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign into law in the next few days, levies fines of as much as $20,000 on organizers of demonstrations that have been banned, draw larger crowds than permitted, take place at a time or location not approved or turn violent.
Those who attend such protests would face fines of as much as $10,000. The measure also provides for up to 200 hours of community service as a punishment for violators.
The legislation, which has aroused a public outcry among Russian activists, was passed by the upper chamber, or Federation Council, after just two hours of discussion, following a painstaking and at times fiery debate in the lower house on Tuesday.
Opposition lawmakers in the lower house, or State Duma, which also is controlled by the pro-Putin United Russia party, tried to bog down passage with long debate concerning their almost 400 proposed amendments. After 11 hours of debate, the Just Russia party faction walked out just before midnight rather than join in the vote that sent the measure to the upper chamber.
Most members of the Federation Council said the bill was something the Russian people wanted.
"In the regions we have a mentality quite different from abroad and from Moscow," Oleg Panteleyev, a senator from the Kurgan region in western Siberia, said during the short-lived debate in the upper house. "They don't approve of these mass rallies and night [pickets] in streets and parks. People are waiting ... for us to pass this law."
"We are sick and tired and we need to stop all this talk and learn to live according to the law," shouted his colleague, Valentina Petrenko. "Don't violate [the law] and you won't pay and be held responsible!"
The speed and timing of the measure's passage suggests the Kremlin's direct involvement and reflects the government's concern about the continued protests since disputed parliamentary elections in December and Putin's own election in March.
"I don't recall a bill passed so quickly by both houses, which indicates that it was sent down to them from the very top, and we have only one man up there now: Vladimir Putin," said Nikolay Svanidze, a popular television anchor.
The president "wants to scare the opposition and especially its moderate part," said Svanidze, who is also a member of the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. "But I think this move will be counterproductive because it will most likely radicalize the current moderates instead.”
Passage of the law comes ahead of next Tuesday's celebration of Russia Day, which the opposition plans to mark with a protest march and rally.
Police have arrested hundreds of people at the frequent protests that have followed Putin's return to the presidency after serving four years as prime minister. On Tuesday, about 50 people were detained for demonstrating against the protest bill in front of the State Duma.
On Wednesday night, about 15 people were detained by the police near the Kremlin when the protesters refused a demand that they take off T-shirts bearing the inscription: "The law on mass rallies is a way to a fascist state."
"This law is taking us to an outright dictatorship as it tramples underfoot the Russian Constitution," Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the opposition Yabloko party who was among those detained, said by telephone from a police van.
And with a reference to the Russian Revolution, he added: "Putin must understand that this law is most dangerous for him personally as it will quickly help to turn peaceful protests into violent ones like 100 years ago.”
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: More than a dozen people, including police officers, were injured and over 400 were arrested during violent clashes between authorities and demonstrators on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration as president. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times