* Putin seeks to show he is tackling corruption
* New laws bar officials from holding foreign bank accounts
* Russia struggling to stem capital flight
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW, Feb 22 Russian lawmakers gave initial
backing on Friday to legislation that would prevent senior
officials holding bank accounts or stocks abroad, a move by
Vladimir Putin to show he is tackling corruption.
If approved by both houses of parliament and signed by the
president, the package of laws will give deputies and other
state officials three months to decide whether to close foreign
accounts and sell stocks abroad - or quit.
The measures, approved in the first of three readings in the
State Duma lower house, are intended by Putin to demonstrate he
is trying to clean up Russia's image and reduce the flight of
tens of billions of dollars a year in capital abroad.
Critics say the steps planned are cosmetic and populist, and
will do little to reduce capital flight. But the Kremlin hopes
they will lift Putin's ratings, which sank last year after the
biggest protests since he first rose to power in 2000.
"Recent opinion polls ... show nationwide support for the
president's initiative," said Irina Yarovaya, a senior member of
Putin's United Russia party who heads the State Duma's committee
for security and fighting corruption.
"Within three months all officials listed in the law must
make a decision - either they continue their work in public
office, but close all accounts and settle all matters related to
securities, bonds and so on - or leave their state jobs."
Most Russians would not be affected by the laws, which apply
to senior state and regional officials, lawmakers, judges,
prosecutors, executives at state-owned companies and members of
the central bank board.
But it would send a signal to the many voters who are
sceptical that Putin is serious about reining in state officials
in a country where corruption is widely perceived as rife.
Many Russians regard foreign accounts as a potential place
to conceal bribes or other ill-gotten gains, although deputies
have repeatedly denied such accusations.
"These bills are aimed at solving one very important task -
the fight against corruption," said Garry Minkh, Putin's envoy
to the State Duma.
TAKING ON THE OPPOSITION
Under the planned new law, immediate family members aged
over 18 would also be obliged to give up their foreign
investments, but ownership of real estate abroad is not barred
as long as it is declared.
The legislation seeks to take the wind out of the sails of
protesters who for 14 months have rallied behind slogans
denouncing Putin and the "swindlers and thieves" they say
surround the president.
Keeping money in Russia is also being painted as a patriotic
duty by Putin, whose rhetoric has often been fiercely
anti-Western since he returned to the Kremlin last May.
Central bank chief Sergei Ignatyev said this week that
almost $50 billion was sent abroad illegally last year - about
2.5 percent of gross domestic product - and that much of it was
controlled by a single group of people he did not identify
Russia ranks 133rd, alongside Honduras and Guyana, out of
174 states in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption
Perception Index. It is under particular international scrutiny
as it chairs the Group of 20 nations this year and has pledged
to push forward the economic forum's anti-corruption agenda.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue, a member of
Putin's party gave up his parliamentary seat this week after
anti-corruption bloggers published documents showing his name on
the deeds of three apartments in the U.S. state of Florida
Vladimir Pekhtin, who had headed the lower house's ethics
committee, said the apartments, which have a combined value of
about $2 million, were owned by his 35-year-old son Alexei.
It would not be illegal for Pekhtin to own the property
abroad but his critics say he did not include the apartments in
declarations he made for the State Duma on his income and