Putin tightens his grip

Facing criticism of the government's handling of the Beslan hostage crisis, the Russian leader consolidates his power with changes to the constitution.

Published September 14, 2004 5:11PM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin made constitutional changes yesterday designed to increase his personal control of Russia's regions and its parliament, saying the government needed "strengthening" because it had failed at Beslan in its fight against terrorism. He told regional governors, cabinet colleagues and senior bureaucrats: "We have not achieved visible results in rooting out terrorism and in destroying its sources.

"The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia."

Putin said that the changes were crucial in the wake of last month's hostage crisis in which gunmen seized School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, and held hostage about 1,200 children, teachers and parents. More than 300 hostages died and 100 people are still missing.

He later issued a decree giving the government two weeks to draft proposals to deal with emergencies and a month to prepare "appropriate measures on foreseeing and preventing terrorism in any form." It called for proposals to improve the work of the security forces, whose performance in Beslan has been widely criticized, and to toughen controls on issuing visas and entering Russia.

But some analysts said the changes, which amount to the biggest single shakeup of Putin's four years in power, would not help to fight terrorism, but would further strengthen his already tight grip on 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," the opposition party Yabloko said in a statement, Reuters reported.

Putin said that he wanted to appoint the currently elected regional governors himself, subject to vetting by the weak regional assemblies, and he wanted all M.P.'s elected by proportional representation, adding that this new system would help to improve the people's control over the authorities in the fight against terrorism.

At present, half the Duma, the lower house of the federal parliament, is directly elected by constituencies, the rest according to the party vote. In theory, the new system could give smaller parties seats in the parliament, but the rules let only parties with more than 7 percent of the vote take seats, disqualifying most.

Putin made two other announcements of more apparent relevance to the Beslan disaster. He made his head of administration, Dmitri Kozak, his personal envoy to the North Caucasus region, which includes North Ossetia and Chechnya, in a move aimed at showing the president's greater personal involvement in the region. He also appointed Vladimir Yakovlev as minister for reconstructed nationalities, a post designed to ease ethnic tension in the South that he abolished when be became president.

Putin hinted at plans for a Russian version of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, established after Sept. 11, saying: "We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hideouts and, if necessary, abroad."

In a rare mention of the social causes of terrorism, he hinted at the huge amount of unemployment and poor health of the North Caucasus. He said that terrorism's roots lay in "unemployment, in insufficiently effective socioeconomic policy and in insufficient education  The district's unemployment rate is several times higher than Russia's average  All of this provides fertile soil for extremism to grow."

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that the changes were the "logical extension" of Putin's desire to have "vertical" control of the regions. "The constitution still says that the Russian people are the source of power, but [now] there is nothing left in the constitution to that effect," she said. The changes would not make Putin a dictator, however, since he still values his invitations to the Group of Eight industrialized countries and the Russian authorities are too corrupt to be authoritarian, she added.

Vladimir Pribyovsky, head of the think tank Panorama, said: "Terrorism is being used as a pretext to change the federal structure of the country." He said that the planned changes to the constitution might lead to Putin trying to alter it to allow himself a third term at the elections in 2008.

Before he won another term in March, Putin ruled out changes to the constitution.

By Nick Paton Walsh

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