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Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Putin calls for elimination of elections for key posts

By Seattle Times news services

Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a televised Cabinet meeting yesterday, announces a series of initiatives to strengthen the Kremlin's power.
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MOSCOW — Portraying it as a means of combating terrorism, Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday outlined a plan to eliminate popular elections of governors and individual members of Parliament, a move one Russian analyst said would "destroy the last vestiges of Yeltsin-era democracy."

Putin's announcement came 10 days after the bloody conclusion of a 52-hour hostage siege in the southern town of Beslan, where terrorists seized a school and 1,200 hostages. The confrontation ended in a flurry of explosions and hours of gunfire that left at least 328 people dead, half of them children. Under Putin's plan, the president would appoint governors, subject to the confirmation of regional legislatures. All members of the lower house of Parliament known as the State Duma would be drawn from party lists rather than elected in individual districts.

"State authority must not only be adjusted to work in crisis situations," Putin said at a televised meeting with his Cabinet. "The mechanisms of its work must be radically reviewed in order to prevent crises."

He added that "the terrorists' long-term plans are aimed at disintegrating the country and shaking the state" and that "the country's unity is the main condition for resisting terrorists."

A customer and shop assistant in Moscow watch a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin during yesterday's Cabinet meeting. During the meeting, Putin called for creation of a powerful anti-terrorism agency.
The former KGB spy, saying the future of the country was at stake, called for creation of a powerful anti-terrorism agency "capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hide-outs and, if necessary, abroad."

However, he offered few details. He reshuffled administrators in the North Caucasus region of the country, where Beslan is located, to install one of his most trusted lieutenants.

In eliminating the election of governors, Putin would formally take charge of naming administrators of the 89 regions that make up the Russian Federation.

Since succeeding Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president, on New Year's Eve 1999, Putin has constantly worked to rein in independent-minded governors, who under his predecessor frequently defied Moscow's authority.

Putin's plan to restructure the State Duma would strengthen the power of his party, United Russia, and the surrogate or allied parties dominated by the Kremlin.

Under the current system, half the 450 members are elected in individual districts and the other half from party lists according to the share of the vote each party gets.

Under the party list, or proportional system, political structures such as United Russia carry far more sway. Russia's only two Western-oriented democratic parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, were knocked out in party-list voting in December's election after failing to gain the minimum number of votes required.

The only members of those parties who made it into Parliament were elected in individual districts.

Putin did not explain why such a change would combat terrorism, except to say that authorities needed to suppress terrorism and "national parties must serve as one of the mechanisms for this."

Putin's changes would require parliamentary approval, but since he controls both houses — the upper house is appointed — legislators and analysts predicted he would have no problem passing them by the end of the year.

The plan was immediately criticized.

"Now it's absolutely clear, Putin wants to use this opportunity to destroy the last vestiges of Yeltsin-era democracy," said Alexander Golts, a national-security expert with the weekly Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. "Instead of attacking terrorists, he's attacking our electoral system."

Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading member of Yabloko, told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio: "Today, all the power agencies that are supposed to fight terrorism are subordinated directly to the president. ... It's incomprehensible why on top of that, he has to name governors. It shows that the president doesn't know what to do, he's at a loss."

The Yabloko party issued a statement that said: "The president's initiative is insulting to the people of Russia, who are deprived of the right to elect those who hold power. 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."

Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said that while Putin's move against the governors could help curb corruption that has flourished in some regions, "At the same time, it means ... a serious lowering of political pluralism."

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies in the State Duma, scorned Putin's political proposals, saying "the next Duma will be a puppet one."

"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."

The political changes have long been circulating among Russia's political elite, said Liliya Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, but their implementation has been "accelerated" by the Beslan tragedy.

"[Putin] apparently believes this is the most effective way of dealing with Russia's problems of terror and insecurity. It fits his ideology of authoritarian modernization," she said.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a political observer with the Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper, said: "This is not a response to terrorism. They have been looking for some pretext to carry out their long-thought-over plans. Other steps might follow to justify three presidential terms." Some experts said that increased Kremlin authority, while curtailing democracy, might be necessary to fight Russia's endemic official laxity and corruption.

"Increasing direct Kremlin control is a logical step dictated by the dangerous weakness of our state structures," said Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow. "Our state will become more authoritarian, but stronger. This will certainly be welcomed by the public."

But a five-minute call-in poll on the Ekho Moskvy radio station yesterday found a majority opposed one of Putin's major changes. Of 3,807 people who responded, 75 percent were for the direct election of regional governors.

Russians, however, generally think that the elected governors and legislators are even more corrupt than were Communist administrators in the Soviet Union, which broke up in 1991.

Russians also have traditionally clamored for a firm hand to restore order and now want action against terrorism, often telling journalists that terrorist attacks would never have happened under dictator Josef Stalin.

Putin's statements appeared aimed at persuading Russians that he is ratcheting up the war against terrorists. It comes at a time Russians, for the first time in Putin's 4½ years in power, have begun to doubt he is the pillar of security they have revered.

At the core of the crisis that Putin and Russia face is the conflict in Chechnya, which has metastasized from a separatist struggle for independence into a springboard for terrorism.

In the past year and a half, attacks blamed on Chechen guerrillas have targeted the Moscow subway, a Moscow rock concert, a military hospital in southern Russia and two passenger jets that were brought down by suicide bombers.

Neither President Bush nor Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry issued a response to the events in Russia.

Compiled from The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor

and The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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