Russian human rights advocates and liberal politicians gathered in Moscow Monday to criticize President Vladimir Putin and call for unity by opposition groups.

Speakers at the congress slammed Mr. Putin for decisions they say are steadily moving Russia back into an authoritarian state. Among those attending were former world chess champion Gary Kasparov and ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

Russia's political liberals are gearing up for the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential election.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin made a surprise visit to Chechnya Monday to attend the opening of the troubled province's new parliament.

The president traveled to the capital city of Grozny by helicopter.

Thousands of Russian troops have died in continued fighting with Chechen rebels since Mr. Putin assumed power in 1999.

Some information for this report provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.