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Thu Sep 16 11:24:41 PDT 2004
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Sep 16th 2004
In the wake of the Beslan bloodbath, President Vladimir Putin has
announced a batch of measures that enhance his power and make life
harder for his opponents. Is Russia inching back towards dictatorship?
"WHAT country will we wake up in tomorrow?" demanded a banner headline
in KOMSOMOLSKAYA PRAVDA, a daily that was once the official organ of
the Soviet Communist youth movement. The best answer anyone can give,
in the light of President Vladimir Putin's latest political moves, is
that tomorrow's Russian state might look uncomfortably like yesterday's
one. More clearly than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the spectre of absolute dictatorship seems to be inching closer,
not fading away.
On Monday September 13th, Mr Putin stunned liberal opinion both in
Russia and abroad by announcing a series of measures that will enhance
the Kremlin's power and make life harder for dissenting voices.
Inevitably, he justified them by citing the need to improve security
after hundreds of adults and children had died in the school taken
hostage by terrorists in Beslan. However, western leaders remain to be
convinced that the Russian president's motives are pure. On Wednesday,
President George Bush urged Mr Putin to "uphold the principles of
democracy" as he fights terrorism. This followed criticism of the
proposed reforms from Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, and
Chris Patten, the European Union's commissioner for external relations.
Russian ministers' reaction to such expressions of concern has been a
firm "Mind your own business."
Under the new measures, the governors of Russia's 89 regions will be
chosen by the president (and then confirmed by local assemblies),
instead of being directly elected. Mr Putin also plans to abolish the
first-past-the-post contests that currently fill half the seats in the
parliament (Duma). In future, the entire Duma will be made up from
party lists, which will squeeze out independent legislators. To many,
Mr Putin seems to be exploiting Beslan to satisfy his appetite for
The trend of strengthening the Kremlin's control has been obvious ever
since Mr Putin became president in 2000. He had already trimmed the
wings of the governors by removing them from the Federation Council,
the upper house of parliament; by appointing presidential emissaries to
watch over them; and by centralising the appointments of regional
police chiefs, prosecutors and security-agency heads. As for the Duma,
it is already dominated by pro-Kremlin parties.
As more details about the Beslan story emerge, it is becoming clear
that the lessons of previous hostage crises had not been learned. Local
troops and authorities, including the FSB security service, were
largely left to fend for themselves, with almost no federal officials
lending support or experience. A haphazard approach to crisis
management meant that under-equipped troops lost control of the
situation to armed civilians. According to one report, some troops had
to ask the civilians for spare bullets. Some federal orders fell on
Does the president understand these weaknesses? Some other steps he is
taking are designed to give the impression, to Russia and the world,
that he does. He promised an inquiry into Beslan. He also promised a
nationwide crisis-management system; a budget increase for the army and
security services (an extra $1.7 billion had already been pledged last
month, after two aircraft were blown up by suicide bombers); stiffer
punishments for corrupt officials who give out false passports; a
nationalities ministry to keep an eye on ethnic issues; and a federal
commission for the northern Caucasus, whose main job will be "the
improvement of the standard of living in the region".
To Putin-watchers, the last item does signal a shift. Though he still
blames foreign terrorists for stirring up trouble in the northern
Caucasus, he also admitted in this week's speech that "the roots of
terror lie in the continuing massive unemployment in the region, and
the lack of an effective social policy".
"Maybe he is only now realising that the poverty and social problems
are the roots of these conflicts," says Fiona Hill of America's
Brookings Institution. Moreover, says Ms Hill, Mr Putin and his
advisers understand how corruption has rotted the security services to
the point of uselessness; they talk in private as well as in public of
the need to "clean things up at the local level". But there is no plan
for how to do it. "This is an opening for the West," she believes.
Indeed, to her and some others, Mr Putin's barrage of measures is an
instinctive reaction of a leadership that fears it has lost control.
Many of his moves look like frantic window-dressing. The nationalities
minister will be Vladimir Yakovlev, an ex-governor of St Petersburg and
one of Mr Putin's political foes. "He couldn't have chosen someone who
knows less about the subject," says Rustam Arifjanov, editor of
NATSIONAL, a magazine about Russia's ethnic groups.
Without a real anti-corruption strategy, says Alexander Belkin at the
Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, a Moscow think-tank, "making
changes to the structure of command at the top is worthless." Mr Putin
is trying to regain the upper hand in the northern Caucasus by sending
his own Kremlin chief of staff, Dmitry Kozak, to oversee the region and
the new federal commission. But Mr Kozak was also in charge of a grand
plan for government administrative reform, and that now risks falling
by the wayside.
As for the changes in the political system, they could eventually prove
counter-productive, as well as irrelevant in the fight against terror.
The more that Mr Putin consolidates power, the more he becomes the only
person to blame when things go wrong. Muscovites are admittedly not a
balanced sample of the country at large, but it says something that, in
an opinion poll after Beslan by the Moscow-based Levada Centre, just a
third of those questioned thought the terrorists "bear responsibility
first and foremost" for the attack, with the rest split almost evenly
between blaming the security services for being unable to prevent it,
and "Russia's leadership, for continuing the war in Chechnya".
If Russia's spooks know anything, it is how to keep unpopular regimes
in power. But woe betide the country if ever-more-draconian measures
became Mr Putin's only way of staving off ever-growing public
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