- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin, responding to a spate of deadly terror attacks, announced a series of anti-terror initiatives yesterday that would strengthen the Kremlin’s grip on every layer of political life.

Mr. Putin told Cabinet members and security officials convened in a special session that the future of Russia was at stake and called for the creation of a powerful anti-terror agency.

“The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia,” he said. “We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks, but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hide-outs and, if necessary, abroad.”

Despite the plans for the new anti-terrorism agency, the proposals were short on security measures, focusing instead on electoral changes, including the elimination of popularly elected governors and an overhaul of the way Russians elect their parliament — a measure likely to increase the control of the dominant, pro-Kremlin faction.

Critics called the measures a blow to democracy and warned that Mr. Putin’s reliance on top-down control ultimately could weaken the nation by driving those in power further from the citizens they rule.

Some critics also suggested that Mr. Putin’s decision to focus on electoral changes was a sign that he lacks practical ideas about protecting Russia after a series of stunning terror attacks, which Russia blamed on Chechen rebels, climaxing in the school siege that killed 327 hostages.

Mr. Putin said he would propose legislation abolishing the election of local governors by popular vote. Instead, they would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures — removing the last vestiges of local autonomy.

Mr. Putin explained his actions as necessary to streamline and strengthen the executive branch to make it more capable of combating terror.

But his critics immediately assailed the proposal as a self-destructive effort that could fuel dissent in the provinces.

“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,” Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading member of the liberal Yabloko faction, told Russia’s Echo Moscow radio. “It shows that the president doesn’t know what to do; he’s at a loss.”

Since taking office in 1999, Mr. Putin has worked constantly to rein in independent-minded governors. He already has tossed them out of Russia’s upper house of parliament and made them subservient to the seven regional envoys that he appointed.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said the president’s move against the governors could help curb corruption that has flourished in some regions.

“At the same time, it means … a lowering of [their] general political authority and a serious lowering of political pluralism,” Mr. Markov told Echo Moscow radio.

In another move aimed at strengthening the federal authorities, Mr. Putin recommended eliminating the individual races that now fill half of the seats in the national parliament and have the entire lower house filled by parties on a proportional basis.

Mr. Putin said the move would help foster dialogue by expanding the clout of political parties, but his opponents warned that it would further increase the clout of the Kremlin-controlled parliament factions that already have an overwhelming majority in the State Duma.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies in the State Duma, scorned the president’s political proposals and said that if they were approved, “the next Duma will be simply virtual, it will consist of just marionette party lists and won’t enjoy any authority.”

A new structure called the Public Chamber would strengthen public oversight of the government and the actions of law-enforcement agencies, Mr. Putin said.

Although Mr. Putin has been criticized for strengthening his own powers in the past three weeks of terrorist violence and the deaths of 430 persons have led to increased support among the Russian people for measures to combat terrorism.

Mr. Putin said official corruption that had helped terrorists — such as the issuing of documents “leading to grave consequences” — should be punished with particular severity. He also signaled that a government crackdown on Islamic groups could be planned, proposing that extremist organizations serving as a cover for terrorists should be outlawed.

Mr. Putin named one of his closest confidants, Cabinet Chief of Staff Dmitry Kozak, to represent him in the southern district that includes the Caucasus.

The Russian president said terrorism is rooted in the low living standards in the North Caucasus, in widespread unemployment and in poor education.

“This is a rich, fertile ground for the growth of extremist propaganda and the recruitment of new supporters of terror,” Mr. Putin said. “The North Caucasus is a key strategic region for Russia. It is a victim of terrorism and also a springboard for it.”

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