Politicians, rights activists decry Putin's reforms

MOSCOW -- Hundreds of Kremlin critics gathered Sunday to denounce what they call a retreat from democracy as President Vladimir Putin signed a bill scrapping gubernatorial elections.

Putin on Sunday denied he seeks to change the constitution. Critics fear his administration might seek amendments to keep him in power past 2008.

The new law signed by Putin gives the president the right to appoint governors and dissolve regional legislatures if they refuse to confirm his nominees.

At Sunday's meeting, an unusual alliance of liberals and communists joined in urging broad public opposition to that bill and other Kremlin-sponsored political reforms that critics say will strengthen Putin's grip on the country at the expense of democracy.

"These are all very different people, but we have been united by one common concern -- the authorities' outright encroachment on our rights," respected rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said at the opening of the All-Russian Civil Congress for Democracy and Against Dictatorship.

As the congress met, the Kremlin announced that Putin had signed the bill eliminating gubernatorial elections into law. Putin's other main proposal would end the direct election of lawmakers in the lower parliament house, the State Duma.

Putin proposed the changes in response to terrorist attacks in August and September that killed more than 450 people. Critics warn that they could violate Russia's constitution, which was adopted in 1993 under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin and was considered one of the main democratic achievements of his troubled rule.

"Today we are seeing a cemetery of democratic freedoms -- honest elections, fair competition, referendums, an independent Duma, an independent Federation Council," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent lawmaker. The State Duma and Federation Council are Russia's lower and upper parliament houses.

"We really have, many of us, voluntarily given up our freedom, and we've gotten what people always get when they give up their freedom: a boot in the face," he said.

Kremlin critics have struggled to regroup since the main pro-Putin party took overwhelming control of the Duma after elections that shut the two main liberal parties out.

Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, suggested that pro-democracy forces must unite as the only way to oppose Putin, and others echoed his call.

"The success of this congress is that the left and the right are forming a broad coalition to fight against increased authoritarianism in Russia," Ryzhkov told The Associated Press.

State-run Rossiya television made no mention of the congress on its evening news program, but gave prominent attention to a Moscow rally by what it said were 15,000 demonstrators, apparently organized by Walking Together, a pro-Putin youth group.

Marchers held signs saying "Putin: We're with you" and others with portraits of opposition figures -- including Yavlinsky, liberal politician Irina Khakamada and self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky -- stamped with the word "traitor."

Critics have expressed concern that the Kremlin might initiate a constitutional amendment enabling Putin to stay in power after his second term ends in 2008.

Meeting with Constitutional Court justices Sunday, Putin emphasized that he has no plans to alter the constitution. "This does not at all mean that we are getting ready to somehow change the constitution or make corrections. Such a task does not stand before us; we have no such plans," he said in televised comments.

As in previous statements, however, he did not rule out changes.