- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Some are calling it “a creeping coup d’etat.”

Others say the sweeping reforms decided by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Sept. 3 Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia and leaked to the news media by Kremlin-friendly political pundits in recent weeks, are long overdue.

But most agree they will change Russia as we’ve known it in the past decade as profoundly as President Boris Yeltsin’s reforms changed Soviet Russia.

First, Mr. Putin wants to change the territorial-administrative structure of the Russian Federation, which currently consists of 89 federal entities — a mishmash of krays (very large regions), oblasts (regions), republics and autonomous okrugs (districts).

It’s a multilayered system inherited by Russia from the Soviet Union.

The heads of these federal entities are currently elected in direct popular elections. Mr. Putin wants to do away with elected governors and get the authority to appoint and sack them at will. He also wants to reduce the number of federal entities.

In effect, he apparently wants to turn Russia into a unitary state in which every governor and maybe even mayors of major cities will be appointed by the Kremlin.

Moreover, Putin advisers have hinted that the Kremlin is considering a major overhaul of Russia’s political system. Right now, Russia is a presidential republic with an incredibly powerful president, and a prime-minister who runs the day-to-day affairs of the government. As in the United States, the president is limited to two consecutive terms.

In theory, the power of the executive branch is checked by the legislature and the judiciary. In practice, however, the Russian Duma and the Constitutional Court have never dared to challenge Mr. Putin.

Kremlin-friendly political pundits have hinted recently that Mr. Putin wants to go further and turn Russia into a parliamentary republic, where the executive and the legislative power will be concentrated in the hands of the prime minister, who could stay in power as long as his party gets the majority of seats in parliament.

Ostensibly these reforms are aimed at strengthening Russia’s hand in fighting terrorism, though none of the president’s point men have been able to explain to the Russian people how appointing governors and mayors will help combat terrorism.

In a lively debate on the pages of Russian newspapers and Internet publications, critics inside and outside Russia have accused Mr. Putin of using the Beslan tragedy to grab more power and to tailor the country’s political system to suit his insatiable thirst for power. Television, which is controlled by the Kremlin, is out of bounds for critics of the president.

Mr. Putin’s supporters argue that the reforms are needed to safeguard Russia’s territorial integrity.

Olga Oliker, a Moscow-based defense and international relations analyst with Rand Corp. who formerly worked for the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Energy, said Mr. Putin’s reforms might actually hamper Russia’s ability to fight terrorism.

“I’m really concerned about Russia’s capacity to face terrorism,” Ms. Oliker said. There is a misguided notion that greater control means greater capacity to fight terrorism, she said.

“I don’t think Russia today would be well servedby more centralization,” Ms. Oliker said. “I think it will be more capable of fighting terrorism if it is less centralized and local forces and authorities are given the resources and authority to develop appropriate skills.”

In fact, events in Beslan showed that handpicked regional leaders like North Ossetia’s President Alexander Dzasokhov and Murad Zyazikov, his counterpart in Ingushetia, were incapable of dealing with the hostage crisis.

To the Kremlin’s chagrin, it was former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, pushed out by Moscow two years ago, who proved the most capable leader during the three-day standoff that culminated in the killing at the school of at least 329 civilians, 115 of them children, according to official figures.

Russian state structures are corrupt and inefficient, and nothing suggests that more centralization would do anything to change that, Ms. Oliker said.

Without significant, far-reaching and comprehensive reform, Russian police will continue taking bribes — as they did from the hijackers of two Russian passenger planes that crashed almost simultaneously on Aug. 24.

Corruption throughout Russian society poses significant security risks, Ms. Oliker said.

But instead of overhauling and strengthening its security forces, curbing the rampant corruption and increasing the capability of local authorities to deal with terrorism, the Putin administration has embarked on a process that in the best case scenario will only sap precious resources, she said.

In the worst case, Mr. Putin’s reforms, if done poorly or without much regard for local sensitivities, can lead to significant discontent, potentially further weakening the country, Ms. Oliker said.

Peter Zeihan, a senior analyst with Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas, thinks that Mr. Putin is racing against the clock to modernize Russia and prepare it for the challenges to come — just as Czar Peter the Great and Empress Catherine the Great tried in 18th century.

“It’s quite possible that autocracy is the only way do it,” Mr. Zeihan said. But he said that just as with Peter and Catherine, Mr. Putin’s reforms are unlikely to survive after he has passed from the scene.

By then, the next president or prime minister — whatever model of rule Mr. Putin chooses for himself now — will have concentrated so much power that he would be able to undo Mr. Putin’s reforms.

“My concern is not with Putin,” Mr. Zeihan said. “My concern is what happens when he is gone.”

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