MOSCOW (AP) _ Russia's overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin lower parliament house approved a bill sharply limiting locations where demonstrations can be held, a move denounced by critics as a threat to democracy.

The State Duma, dominated since December elections by the United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin, approved the bill in its first of three readings, 294-137. To become law, it also needs to be approved by the compliant upper house and signed by Putin.

The bill would ban allies and pickets outside official buildings, foreign embassies, international organizations and high-risk industrial facilities as well as along highways, railways and pipelines.

It drew swift criticism from opposition politicians ranging from Communists in the Duma to liberals who were voted out in December. Communist lawmaker Viktor Tyulkin called it ``a mockery of the rights and freedoms which are written into our constitution.''

Sergei Kovalyov, a prominent human rights activist, said the bill's phrasing could allow authorities to ban rallies at almost any city location.

``The government wants to protect itself from the actions of disgruntled people,'' said Alexei Ostrovsky, a lawmaker from ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR.

Several dozen members of the liberal Yabloko party picketed the Duma buildings along with some environmental activists. Police dispersed the rally and briefly detained several organizers.

Yabloko deputy chairman Sergei Mitrokhin said the experience reminded him of the waning days of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 amid increasing democracy and freedoms that critics of Putin says he is reversing.

``Back during the perestroika era I took part in street actions and was detained, but that was a long time ago _ 15 years ago,'' Mitrokhin said on NTV. ``It seems like those times are returning.''