Russia OKs legislation to ease party registration

MOSCOW — Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved legislation intended to simplify the registration of political parties, a move influenced by massive protests after a December election widely viewed as tainted by fraud.

The legislation, which outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to sign into law next week, was welcomed by those who believe it could help loosen the tight grip held by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the president-elect, and the governing United Russia party. But others remained skeptical of the good the changes would bring, saying the new rules could result in the creation of so many political parties that the electorate may become confused or disillusioned.

The proposed reforms include reducing to 500 from 40,000 the number of members needed for a party to register for participation in elections. Other provisions aim to ease and speed up the registration process, which has been insurmountable for many new parties.

Sergei Markov, a Putin supporter and conservative political expert, said Russia needs the new law to liberalize the political process and accomplish sweeping reforms, but that the creation of hundreds of parties, including those that may encourage “separatist tendencies,” could be harmful. The appearance of “oligarchs’ parties” that would serve the interests of individual tycoons, also could hurt Russia, said Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.

Opposition figures questioned the government’s true intentions, pointing to conditions that resulted in Putin winning the March presidential election in a little-contested race with no liberal opposition contenders on the ballot. National and foreign observers noted widespread irregularities in the voting.

The government’s main goal “is to show the population that the only real political force in the country is Vladimir Putin as the opposition drowns in the sea of new small and insignificant parties,” said Konstantin Merzlikin, secretary of the federal political council of the opposition party Parnas. “We can’t really accept the new law as a big step toward democratization as in reality it is just a smoke screen which doesn’t change anything.”

Officials said 85 new parties are already on the waiting list for registration, among them at least four pro-monarchy parties, several socialist parties, several nationalist parties, one religious party, a pirates party, a party of beer lovers, a party against all, a party of love and a party “without a name.”

Medvedev, in his final state of the nation speech in December, promised reforms, including those that would reverse some practices incorporated during Putin’s 12 years as president and prime minister.

United Russia still holds a majority of seats in the parliament despite losing its dominance in the December vote. The election results, marred by accusations of widespread ballot box stuffing and other problems, drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow and other cities.

Parnas, or the People’s Freedom Party, led by well-known public figures such as Mikhail Kasyanov, who was prime minister under Putin, and Boris Nemtsov, who was first deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s administration, has been repeatedly denied registration over the last few years. The Justice Ministry has said it found problems, such as provisions of the party’s charter, that are in conflict with Russian legislation.

As recently as last week, the Moscow city court in its final ruling agreed that the registration denial was legal. Now the party is faced with a choice of taking its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, or applying for registration again in Russia in a test of the new provisions.

Merzlikin said the latest legislation still allows the Justice Ministry to reject an application if officials deem information provided by a political party seeking registration to be untrue or unreliable.

“The size of the party membership has never been a problem to us,” he said. “And in this sense the law doesn’t change anything for us as the Kremlin still controls lots of old levers to keep us out of the game.”