MOSCOW — Russia's lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to give President Vladimir Putin the right to disband local legislatures and fire regional governors who break the law, overriding an upper house veto of the bill.
The bill — part of a package of Putin legislation aimed at increasing central control over Russia's far-flung regions — had been rejected by the upper house, or Federation Council. The Federation Council is made up of regional leaders, many of whom see the Putin package as an attack on the autonomy that former President Boris Yeltsin gave regional leaders as an incentive to support the Kremlin.
On Wednesday, the lower house, or State Duma, voted 363-35 to overcome the Federation Council's veto. Eight legislators abstained.
The Duma also voted Wednesday to accept a compromise version of another bill from the Putin package — one providing for the elected regional leaders in the Federation Council to be removed from the council. They would be replaced by legislators appointed by the governors with approval from local lawmakers.
The two chambers had met to discuss the bill, and the Federation Council succeeded in amending it to extend current council members' terms to Dec. 31, 2001 from Feb. 1, 2001. The Duma vote on the compromise bill was 308 for and 88 against, with five abstentions.
"In my view, this bill has become better and I'm glad that the State Duma . . . supported the decision of the conciliation commission," said Oleg Morozov, the leader of the Russia's Regions faction in the Duma.
In recent years, Russia's governors have been increasing their powers, while the federal government weakened. Wealthier regions often refuse to share revenues with the central government, and some governors have turned into authoritarian rulers of their territories.
Putin argues that Russia's economic problems cannot be fixed until the often defiant provinces are reined in.
But some opponents of Putin's package continued to speak out against the bills. Liberal lawmaker Sergei Yushenkov said the bill "transforms the Federation Council into a chamber of puppets."
The council approves presidential proposals on the introduction of martial law and states of emergency, authorizes the deployment of Russian troops abroad, appoints Constitutional and Supreme Court justices, and appoints and dismisses the country's prosecutor-general.
"With the important functions invested with the Federation Council, transforming it into a puppet chamber is extremely dangerous," Yushenkov said.
In the Federation Council, one of the harshest critics of the package said it "poses a threat of the collapse of the Russian Federation."
"All these bills do is to weaken the upper chamber as a chamber representing the regions," said Nikolai Fyodorov, head of the Chuvashia region in central Russia. "A strong regional power seems unacceptable to the Kremlin bureaucrats."
Putin's plan also allows the president to suspend governors if the prosecutor-general charges them with a serious crime. Critics say that provision clears the way for summary suspensions of regional leaders who fall out of the government's favor.
"A road has been opened wide for unbridled arbitrariness by prosecutors," said reformist lawmaker Boris Nemtsov.
One of the few legislators in the Duma to publicly criticize Putin's plan, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, officially resigned from the legislature Wednesday before the votes. He said he was protesting what he described as Putin's plans to rein in the independent-minded regions as well as the Kremlin's alleged attempts to destroy big business.
State prosecutors and tax police have recently instituted proceedings against some of Russia's biggest businesses, threatening the so-called "oligarchs" who have used their political connections in the past to build powerful economic empires.
"The actions of this government are absolutely dangerous to society. It does not take society into account," Berezovsky said. "It thinks it knows better than society what that society needs.
"Either Russia becomes a normal country and business will receive support from the state, or Russia will stop being a normal country and go through another round of hell," he said.