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Russian legislators have been busy unraveling key reforms that could have strengthened Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, spurring speculation that the Kremlin is working behind the scenes to weaken the former president. Since reclaiming the presidency in May, Vladimir Putin initiated a series of counter-reforms, culminating in the adoption of highly unpopular laws by Russian senators this week. The senators, who started a month-long summer recess on Wednesday, approved a number of legislative measures that critics say would significantly roll back limited reforms undertaken by former president Medvedev.
The Federation Council – Russia’s Upper House of Parliament – on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that labels certain foreign-funded nongovernmental groups as “foreign agents,” just five days after it sailed through the Duma. The council also approved the heavily criticized Internet censorship bill, which allows the federal government to set up a registry of blacklisted Web sites. The latter law is seen as a drawback for the country's nascent online community and a stab at former president Medvedev, who had burnished his image as an iPad-wielding, tech-savvy president.
The senators also overwhelmingly endorsed another bill that criminalizes libel and insult, despite some senators having voted earlier to decriminalize the offences under former president Medvedev. President Putin earlier defended the controversial bills during talks with top human rights officials, saying that the widespread criticism of the bills was unfounded. Putin said that the bill that brands nongovernmental organizations "foreign agents" would not restrict their work because it contains no prohibitions. Putin also said that another bill making libel a criminal offense was warranted, but that lawmakers should soften it by removing the threat of prison sentences.
Meanwhile, Yevgeny Fyodorov, a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, said he submitted another bill that would force media outlets that receive foreign financing to call themselves “foreign agents.” Other party officials had earlier denied such a measure was in the offing, but the proposed amendment to the country's press law was listed among bills coming up for debate on Wednesday, the RBC Daily reported. The bill imposes no punishment for violation of the new rule, Fyodorov told the paper. "It is simply a legislative amendment requiring media outlets that receive money from abroad to come clean about their sources of financing," Fyodorov said.
The Federation Council also ratified Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization on Wednesday, despite protests from opposition politicians. Opponents of the agreement claimed that WTO entry will cause major damage to whole sectors of the economy, including the agricultural and timber industries. But the senators turned down another crucial bill backed by the former president that would have introduced a single day of voting in Russia on the second Sunday of September. Putin's ally and Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that there was "no political motivation behind the bill's rejection," adding that the bill should be reworked.
Many Russian newspapers, however, have interpreted the latest activity in the council as a deliberate effort to undermine the position of the Russian prime minister, who stepped down last year to make way for Putin's return to the Kremlin. "The legislative initiatives of former President Dmitry Medvedev have either been nullified, rejected or are lying dormant in the State Duma," the authoritative Vedomosti newspaper wrote on Thursday. A draft bill on the composition of the State Duma did not make it to its first reading, while debate on a bill guaranteeing the rights of orphans has been put off indefinitely, the paper said. The popular tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets also chimed in with a blaring headline: “The Federation Council rejected one of Medvedev’s laws and approved three anti-Medvedev laws.”
The Russian prime minister proposed political reforms during the last weeks of his presidency in the hope of liberalizing the political system and loosening the ruling elite's tight grip on power. But with president Putin back in the Kremlin, many of his most liberal reforms – including direct gubernatorial elections, the removal of barriers to party registration and the establishment of independent public television – have either been watered down or reversed. "The writing’s on the wall for the prime minister,” said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. "The implication is that the party he heads ignores his initiatives. The political elite know quite well that president Putin has essentially set an anti-reform revolution in motion."
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