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Russian Duma Approves Controversial Political Reforms

The lower house of Russia's parliament, or Duma, has given preliminary approval to a plan that would allow President Vladimir Putin to appoint regional governors. The move is part of a package of reforms the Russian leader says are needed to fight terrorism, but that critics say is a setback for democracy.

The State Duma voted overwhelmingly to approve a first reading of the bill, which would increase the Kremlin's control over the 89 regions that make up the world's largest country.

Among other things, the bill would allow President Putin to appoint regional governors, doing away with the current system of direct elections.

The appointees would then have to be approved by regional legislatures. However those local parliaments could themselves be dismissed by the Kremlin if they reject the choice for governor twice.

President Putin proposed the changes in the wake of the bloody hostage drama at a school in southern Russia in September that killed over 300 people, many of them children.

The Russian leader says that centralization of power in Russia is necessary in the battle to defeat terrorism, most of which is related to the long-running conflict in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

However the proposal quickly met with criticism inside Russia, and from several world leaders, including President Bush.

Protesters held rallies in many parts of the country on Thursday and again on Friday as the Duma was preparing to begin its debate.

Irina Khakamada was the leader of a small, pro-Western party which was in the Duma until pro-Putin parties swept it aside in a controversial election last December.

She says the changes are a sign of what she calls increasing authoritarianism by President Putin's, using terrorism as a pretext to limit democracy.

Ms. Khakamada calls the president's approach cynical and says he and his party are treating the Russian people "like a flock of sheep."

In recent years President Putin has gradually consolidated his grip on most levers of power in Russia, something he says is necessary in what he refers to as the "verticalization" of power.

The Kremlin says Russians prefer to see a strong leader at the top, and since taking office five years ago President Putin has enjoyed strong approval ratings.

But critics say this is partly due to state control over most of the broadcast media, including all three major television networks.

The political reform bill still has some way to go before it becomes law, and the few opposition deputies left in the Duma say the best they can hope for is that some amendments will be made to the current draft of the bill.