MOSCOW – Taking a tough stand against dissent, President Vladimir Putin ignored public opposition and hired some Russia's most unpopular former ministers Tuesday and Russian lawmakers debated a draconian bill that raises fines for joining unsanctioned protests 200-fold.
Opposition lawmakers denounced the new sanctions against protesters as an attempt to stifle public debate, warning that it would fuel public outrage and destabilize the country by depriving the public of an ability to express discontent.
Sergei Mironov, the leader of the opposition Just Russia party, said his faction was boycotting the hearings of the "odious" bill intended to "shut the people's mouth."
Police on Tuesday quickly rounded up several members of the liberal Yabloko party who attempted to protest the new bill outside parliament. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin told reporters before being detained by police that the bill was intended to intimidate the opposition.
"A direct signal is being made by those in power: sit down and keep quiet!" Mitrokhin said.
Putin has toughened his stance against the opposition since winning a third term in March's election, rejecting a dialogue with its leaders and stonewalling their demands.
In a show of contempt for public criticism, Putin appointed ex-Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev as an undersecretary of the presidential Security Council and named several other former ministers as presidential advisers.
Putin named his new Cabinet on Monday, retaining some key figures but dropping some of the most widely detested ministers, including Nurgaliyev, Health Minister Tatyana Golikova and Education Minister Andrei Fursenko.
Nurgaliyev has faced massive public outrage over widespread incidents of torture and other abuses by police, while Golikova and Fursenko have been linked to the worsening state of the nation's health care and education systems.
The appointment of former ministers to new official positions has been expected given Putin's record of keeping his lieutenants employed despite public outrage.
Putin's re-election bid was challenged by massive demonstrations against his 12-year rule that drew up to 100,000 people in Moscow, but the protests have abated after the vote and the Kremlin has taken a harsher attitude against its political foes.
A demonstration of at least 20,000 people a day before Putin's May 7 inauguration turned into a fierce battle with police as some of the protesters tried to march on the Kremlin. Scores were injured in clashes and hundreds were detained as police chased opposition members around the Russian capital.
Putin's opponents sought to maintain momentum by holding a series of protests in downtown Moscow, but police quickly dispersed them.
Moving further to rein in the opposition, the Kremlin-controlled lower house of the parliament on Tuesday debated a bill raising fines for joining unsanctioned rallies from the current maximum of 5,000 rubles ($160) to 1,000,000 rubles ($32,250).
The Communists also said they would vote against the new legislation, but the opposition doesn't have enough votes to block the bill's passage in the State Duma, which is dominated by the Kremlin's United Russia party.
Communist lawmaker Valentin Romanov said during the debate that the Kremlin wants new sanctions against protesters in place in anticipation of a public anger against unpopular social reforms, which are in the works.
"It's a pre-emptive move preceding a rise in social protests across the country," he said.
Due to term limits, Putin spent four years in the premier's seat after serving two consecutive terms from 2000 to 2008 as president. Despite the title change he remained Russia's No. 1 leader all along. His protege Dmitry Medvedev stepped down to allow Putin to reclaim the presidency, receiving the premiership in exchange.
Putin's fellow KGB veterans Sergei Ivanov and Nikolai Patrushev have been respectively re-appointed as the Kremlin chief of staff and the head of the presidential Security Council.
Another longtime Putin's aide, former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin who was in charge of the energy sector hasn't yet been given a new government job, but Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Sechin also would have a role.
Several officials who served in Medvedev's administration during his presidency followed him to the Cabinet, while Putin retained others who served under him during his premiership, like his spokesman Peskov, who got the same job in the Kremlin.