By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) - Legislation that would make it much easier to form political parties in Russia sailed through the Kremlin-controlled parliament Friday, part of the government's efforts to respond to a wave of protests against Vladimir Putin's rule.
The bill, which the State Duma passed in its third and final reading, is part of a legislative package aimed at easing stringent controls over Russia's political system that have caused public outrage. The legislation still has to be approved by the upper house and signed by the president who initiated it, a procedure considered routine.
Other bills awaiting parliamentary approval would restore direct elections for provincial governors and liberalize campaign rules.
The reforms have been widely seen as an effort by the Kremlin to assuage the public anger that spilled into the streets in a series of rallies that drew tens of thousands in Moscow.
Putin served as president from 2000 to 2008 before shifting into the prime minister's seat because of term limits. He won a third term as president in a March 4 election with 64 percent of the vote, despite massive opposition rallies.
For years, Putin has rolled back Russia's post-Soviet freedoms, scrapping gubernatorial elections, sidelining opposition parties, and turning parliament into a rubber-stamp for the Kremlin decisions. Despite that authoritarian streak, he remained popular, thanks to windfall oil revenues that helped improve living standards and his efforts to restore the nation's Soviet-era clout and prestige. But growing public anger at rampant corruption and social inequality in Russia has helped fuel support for his critics in the last year.
The legislation regarding the formation and activities of political parties was submitted to parliament for its approval by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev, whom Putin promised to make the prime minister after regaining the presidency.
The bill approved Friday would abolish tough requirements for political parties, including reducing the number of members a party needs to obtain registration from 40,000 to just 500. It also would simplify and shorten the registration process and the rules for the activities of such parties.
Russia's next election to the national parliament isn't scheduled until 2016, but the new law would allow nascent parties to compete for seats in local elections later this year.
Sergei Mitrokhin of the liberal Yabloko party, which failed to make it into parliament in December's election, said the new law would make life easier for the parties, but added that it still would maintain some of the existing restrictions.
He said a remaining ban on forming election blocs would allow the government to keep its critics fragmented and incapable of casting a real challenge.
"Can we call that bill a victory of the common sense? No, not as long as the ban on forming election blocs is there," Mitrokhin said.
Communist lawmaker Anatoly Lokot said that while the new legislation would allow the creation of numerous parties, it would still give the authorities the necessary levers for denying registration to some critics.