- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

New Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday took a giant step toward imposing the Kremlin's will across his country's 11 time zones.
Russia's lower house of parliament yesterday gave overwhelming support to a trio of bills designed to enhance Mr. Putin's authority at the expense of the country's powerful regional governors.
In addition to revamping the membership of the upper house, the bills would allow Mr. Putin to dismiss elected governors accused of wrongdoing and give the governors the right to dismiss corrupt local officials.
"We need a strong, effective state, and the presidential bills are aimed at that," said Boris Gryzlov, head of the pro-Putin Unity party faction in the State Duma.
The votes provide a boost to the new Kremlin leader just three days before he welcomes President Clinton to Moscow for a two-day summit. They also raise new fears that Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, has little sympathy for democracy or limited government power.
All three measures passed on the first of three readings in the State Duma with more than 75 percent of the deputies voting in favor a sign that Mr. Putin can override expected opposition to the bills in the Federal Council, the upper house of parliament, where the 89 regional governors sit.
The bills will be put to two more votes in the State Duma later this month before final passage, with deputies of the Communist Party the largest bloc in the Duma saying they will try to limit Mr. Putin's power with amendments.
Nevertheless, both supporters and opponents expressed surprise at the size of Mr. Putin's victory margin, far beyond the two-thirds majority needed to override a possible negative vote in the Federation Council.
"It looks like we have more votes than we expected," said Alexander Kotenkov, a key Putin ally in the State Duma.
Ironically, the most outspoken opponent of the bills was "oligarch" Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire and State Duma deputy linked by many with the worst excesses of the government of Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin's predecessor.
In an open letter to Mr. Putin printed yesterday in Kommersant, a Russian business newspaper he owns, Mr. Berezovsky predicted the bills would "ultimately fail and do more harm than good."
"In a democratic country, such decisions are unthinkable without public debate and a referendum," Mr. Berezovsky argued. "The president should not be in a hurry in tackling matters of historic proportion in a vast and gravely sick country."
But Mr. Putin, who enjoys favorability ratings of over 60 percent in the most recent polls, clearly has set as a top priority correcting what many felt was a fatal failing of the Yeltsin government the inability to curtail the almost-baronial powers of regional governors and translate Kremlin-directed reforms into real results at the local level.
Even before the Duma debate, Mr. Putin by decree established seven presidentially appointed "superenvoys" overseeing vast new federal districts. The move was seen as a clear attempt to create a new level of oversight for the regions and rein in local laws that conflicted with federal statutes.
Mr. Putin praised the Duma vote and blandly dismissed Mr. Berezovsky's criticisms.
"The fact that a point of view is being expressed is not a bad thing," he said yesterday.
On another front, the Kremlin suffered a serious setback in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where a rebel-laid mine badly wounded the Moscow-appointed mayor of the Chechen capital of Grozny and killed his deputy.
The attack came amid sporadic fighting in the province's southern mountains, where Moscow says it has launched a major new offensive this week. Both sides said they had made advances in the eight-month war and had killed several of their opponents.
Yesterday's parliamentary vote was in stark contrast to the Kremlin-Duma antagonism that dominated much of Mr. Yeltsin's tenure.
Even a number of regional governors, eyeing Mr. Putin's popularity, have given at least nominal support to the package of bills, although many are said to be working behind the scenes to undercut the reforms.
The Kremlin reform program still faces some negotiating hurdles in the State Duma.
Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov, who did not impose a position on his delegates in yesterday's votes, hinted strongly that he wants the bills amended before the third and final reading June 30.
"It is extremely important to restore [the central government's] ability to govern, but we must know whose hands it will fall into and on what conditions," Mr. Zyuganov said in an interview yesterday with Russia's NTV television station.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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