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Putin, Citing Terror Threat, Moves to Centralize Power

Russian leader is accused by some of exploiting the school tragedy to curb democratic rights.

September 14, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday proposed measures that would enhance his own power and the Kremlin's political control of the country, arguing that stronger state authority is needed to fight terrorists in the wake of a school hostage crisis earlier this month.

In televised remarks to Cabinet ministers, top security officials and regional leaders, Putin said he would soon submit to parliament a draft law giving him the power to appoint the top leaders of the 89 regions that make up the Russian Federation.

His appointments would be subject to confirmation by regional legislatures. These administrative heads -- who have the role of governor but hold various titles in different regions -- currently are elected by popular vote.

Putin also proposed a second law under which all members of the lower house of parliament would be elected from party lists on a proportional basis, meaning that only politicians selected by major parties could have any hope of getting elected.

With parties that back Putin dominating both houses of parliament, passage of the proposed laws seems to be assured.

"Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts seek to bring about a disintegration of the country, to break up the state, to ruin Russia," Putin declared. "I am sure that the unity of the country is the main condition of victory over terror."

Critics immediately charged that Putin was exploiting the school tragedy, in which about 330 hostages died, to push forward an authoritarian agenda that further curbs democratic rights in Russia.

"The president's initiative is insulting to the people of Russia, who are deprived of the right to elect those who hold power," the opposition Yabloko party said in a statement. "The last link in the system of checks and balances, which has prevented an excessive concentration of power in one pair of hands, is being abolished."

But Sergei Markov, a prominent political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said he viewed Putin's moves as a legitimate response to the school attack in the southern city of Beslan.

Putin said that in the wake of the hostage crisis there -- which authorities linked to guerrillas fighting for the independence of nearby Chechnya -- the security of citizens cannot be assured without enhancing the government's ability to address "the entire range of problems facing the country."

To do that, he said, the central and regional governments should "form a single power structure" and operate as "an integral organism with a single chain of command."

Since becoming prime minister in 1999 and president in 2000, Putin has worked to rein in regional governors, who previously enjoyed more power and autonomy. Putin eliminated their automatic membership in the upper house of parliament and appointed seven regional envoys who supervise their activities.

Now he is trying to ensure more direct control by incorporating regional government into the central hierarchy of power.

"Putin is trying to set up a structure where the president can issue commands through regional governments," said Sergei Kolmakov, vice president of the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism, a Moscow think tank.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, said the changes in how that body was elected would mean that "the next Duma will be a puppet one."

"The cancellation of governors elections across the nation is an antidemocratic measure aimed at consolidation of the Kremlin's power and Vladimir Putin's personal power," Ryzhkov said.

"You can only imagine," he added, "what would happen if President Bush, as a measure to fight terrorism, had proposed elections to Congress based on party lists and the appointment of governors by Washington. How would he look? In fact it has no relation to fighting terror. Unfortunately Putin is using any occasion for strengthening his authoritarian regime, including such an 'occasion' as the Beslan tragedy."

Markov, the analyst with Kremlin ties, disagreed.

"I think in the future, Russia will have to move back to election of regional leaders, since it's more democratic," Markov said. "But now, in the situation of real war, it's a step the president has to take under the pressure of political reality. Russian institutions are under attack, and the president has to do it .... We hope that sometime we will be able to move in a more democratic direction, but to do it under [conditions of] war is very difficult."

In recent weeks, Russia has also been hit by apparent suicide bombings that brought down two airliners, killing all 90 on board, and another that killed 10 bystanders near a Moscow subway station.

In his speech, Putin proposed tougher legal measures against militant groups.

"Extremist organizations using religious, nationalistic and any other phraseology as a cover, while actually being seedbeds of terror, should be banned and their leaders and active participants be prosecuted in line with the law," he said.

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