MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin signed a law on Tuesday letting him pick candidates to lead Russia's regions if local lawmakers scrap popular polls, in what critics called a setback for democracy in the Russian leader's new term.
The law allows each of the country's 83 regions to repeal direct elections of governors, introduced just last year in a concession during a wave of protests by Russians fed up with Putin's dominance and demanding a stronger political voice.
Putin has said the law is needed to protect the rights of minorities in ethnically mixed regions such as the mostly Muslim provinces of the insurgency-plagued North Caucasus.
The Kremlin is concerned that direct elections in the volatile regions could spark unrest or involve candidates whose loyalty is in question. Russia is holding the Winter Olympics next February in Sochi, close to the North Caucasus provinces.