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Russia: Putin's Proposed Political Changes Spark Criticism

Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a series of proposed changes to the political system has led some critics to claim that he has used recent terrorist attacks as a pretext to boost his powers -- and that his proposals appear to have little to do with improving security.

Prague, 14 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday announced a series of proposed changes to the political system as a way to strengthen Russia's unity and fight against terrorism in the wake of the Beslan school tragedy -- the hostage-taking siege in North Ossetia that ended last week with the loss of more than 300 lives, half of them children.

"Combating terror is our common and chief goal, and its achievement depends on how effectively all the resources of the state and society are mobilized," Putin said.

But the proposals have so far sparked widespread criticism.

Detractors accuse Putin of using terrorism as an excuse to boost his already considerable powers over the state. And they say the proposals have little to do with actually improving security or fighting terrorism.

Putin's plans include a proposal to end the direct election of regional governors. Instead, regional assemblies will elect candidates nominated by the president.

Putin has also proposed doing away with first-past-the-post elections to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, so that delegates are elected only on the basis of party lists.

The proposals have received support from Russia's political establishment.

"I believe it really is necessary now to change the election-system legislation and start thinking about strong parties [represented] in the parliament, parties that can assume the responsibility of fulfilling the load of tasks present in the country and not speculate on some ideas of opposition," First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska said. "If there should be an opposition party in the Duma, it must get through with dignity and have some serious electorate behind it."

But critics counter -- what does all this have to do with fighting terrorism?

"We were waiting really for some serious, substantial measures. Instead, some old political tricks of the Kremlin were thrown out on the table, which had been prepared several years ago," independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said. "The Kremlin has long cherished the dream of appointing governors and getting rid of the obstinate, single-mandate Duma deputies. But what does Beslan have to do with this? And how moral is it to use the deaths of hundreds of hostages, including children, in order to reach one's old political goals, which aim simply at strengthening the president's personal power but not fighting terror?"

Today's newspapers went further. "Back to the past" ran one headline in "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

Others say the proposals are unconstitutional, a charge Putin denies.

"Part of the constitution that says that Russia is a federal state," noted Georgii Satarov, head of the INDEM foundation for political research. "Putin and the governors have different mandates. This [the proposals] mean a removal and therefore the destruction of federalism. It's a fundamental change to the whole political system with consequences that have not been analyzed. It's a unconstitutional revolution, to call it by its name."

Saratov added that the Russian Constitution stipulates that laws that infringe on citizens' rights cannot be adopted. "Putin is taking from citizens part of their electoral rights," Saratov said. "Then there's the important Article 3, which says that power belongs to Russia's citizens and they exercise that power through [elected] representatives or via referendums. Until now, they exercised that power via their representatives/governors. The president is removing these representatives and is proposing that governors would be representatives of the president, not of citizens."

However, James Nixey, a Russia analyst with London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, said that to call the proposals a return to the past might be extreme. "But the changes appear to be bureaucratic and political rather than security orientated, so it's difficult to see how this will [improve] security in any meaningful way," Nixey said. "This is going to be a way for him to have a harder line on many of these semiautonomous republics because he will be able to exert greater control from the center. He certainly has the capability to do it, but whether it produces a reduction in terrorism is highly moot."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report)

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