Russia's lower house of parliament on Friday was to vote on the crucial second reading of a controversial bill ending the election of independent lawmakers, a measure assailed by opposition parties as reinforcing the Kremlin's control of political life.
The bill, which was one of the political reforms initiated by President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the school hostage-taking raid in September that killed 330 people, has already received preliminary approval in the lower chamber, the State Duma.
It envisages the election of Duma members solely by party lists, as opposed to the existing system in which the house's 450 seats are split equally between parties and winners of single-ballot district races.
Putin said the new bill would help consolidate Russia's nascent political parties, but opposition leaders argued that it would only strengthen the domination of the Kremlin-directed United Russia party and sideline independents and smaller opposition parties.
United Russia already has a two-thirds majority in parliament.
"Why is this law needed?" said Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in comments broadcast on the private NTV television channel. "It stacks all the cards in favor of the ruling party."
The parliament already has approved Putin's proposal to end popular elections of provincial governors. Putin said that all of the changes in Russia's political system were needed to strengthen the state against the threat of terrorism, but critics have argued that the changes would strengthen the Kremlin's authoritarian trends.
The bill must pass three readings in the lower house before obtaining approval in the upper chamber. Putin must then sign it into law.
On the photo: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov
The General Staff noted that the document appeared at a time when Russia was trying to deter the arms race unleashed by the United States