- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned Russia yesterday that broad new anti-terrorism moves announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin could harm the country’s still-struggling democracy.

Mr. Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage criticized Mr. Putin’s plan to fight terror by centralizing political power. Mr. Powell said it marked a “pulling back on some of the democratic reforms” in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“You have to find a balance between fighting terrorism in an aggressive way and also making sure that we don’t undercut the institutions of state that are based on the foundation of democracy,” Mr. Powell told Reuters news agency.

Mr. Armitage, on a visit to Latvia, said the proposals, revealed by Mr. Putin at a Cabinet meeting Monday, “seem to be out of step with the way we’d hoped that Russia would be heading.”

Reacting to a string of terrorist strikes in Russia capped by a recent hostage taking that killed at least 327 at a school in Beslan, Mr. Putin issued a decree creating a centralized anti-terrorism agency.

Mr. Putin also proposed major changes in Russia’s electoral system as part of the anti-terror drive, measures widely seen as reining in potential rivals and critics of the government.

Mr. Putin’s plan would end direct popular elections for Russia’s often rebellious regional governors. Governors instead would be nominated by the president and endorsed by regional assemblies.

In addition, members of the State Duma, the lower and more powerful house of the Russian parliament, would be selected solely through party lists, eliminating a whole class of lawmakers elected directly by voters in their districts.

Vice President Dick Cheney, at a campaign stop in Ottumwa, Iowa, said earlier this week that the Russian attacks and Mr. Putin’s reaction demonstrated that even governments opposed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq have been forced to confront the challenge of terrorism.

“I think some had hoped that if they kept their heads down and stayed out of the line of fire, they wouldn’t get hit,” Mr. Cheney said. “I think what happened in Russia demonstrates pretty conclusively that everybody is a target.

“And I think people are sort of reassessing now, in terms of what the motives may be of the people who are launching these attacks or using these kinds of tactics against our people,” he said.

Many leading Moscow newspapers took Mr. Putin to task yesterday, accusing him of using the Beslan tragedy as a pretext for a power grab.

“These reforms will make the system of government less efficient and more corrupt,” said the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, while Izvestia called the planned changes “the most radical of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.”

Although the Duma is dominated by the Kremlin’s political allies, some independent members slammed the proposed changes.

“I don’t understand how one can use the blood of Beslan’s victims to resolve political tasks, to protect one’s political interests and strengthen one’s power,” said Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov.

Mr. Putin, who remains the country’s most popular political figure five years after taking office, has long chafed at the independence of Russia’s 89 regional governors, many of whom enjoy near-autocratic powers in their districts.

In a nationally televised address Monday, Mr. Putin argued that terrorists such as those behind the Beslan attack have tried to exploit the political divisions within the government.

“I am sure that the unity of the country is the main prerequisite for victory over terror,” he said.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the nationalist Motherland Party in the Duma, defended Mr. Putin’s plan, saying a governor appointed by the president would have had more authority to act decisively in Beslan.

Mr. Rogozin said, “This would help prevent a mess we could see in the North Caucasus.”

Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said yesterday that the government would spend $5.4 billion on beefing up its security organs, from the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service to border guards. It was not clear how much of the money was in new funds and how much had been added to the draft state budget for 2005.

U.S. officials said they understood the revulsion felt in Russia after the Beslan attack, in which more than half the victims were children.

“Nothing justifies the horrible terrorist actions that occurred last week in Russia,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

But Mr. Powell reiterated yesterday that the Kremlin must seek a political settlement with separatist rebels from Chechnya, thought to be behind the Beslan atrocity and other strikes on Russian military and civilian targets.

Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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