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Russia: Kremlin Submits Bill To Strengthen Putin's Powers

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo) The Kremlin administration has submitted a bill to parliament to further strengthen President Vladimir Putin's executive powers, allowing him to hire and fire regional governors at will. The Kremlin says the bill is needed to combat terror but critics say it could sounds the death knell of Russia's already troubled democracy.

Prague, 30 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Special times call for special measures.

That's according to President Putin, who says the executive chain of command must be tightened in Russia, in order for the country to more effectively combat terrorism.

The two main components of the president's bill are to abolish popular elections for Russia's regional governors and to elect all State Duma deputies according to a proportional party system, abolishing single-mandate districts.

At present, half of the deputies in the Duma are elected according to party slates and the other half come from individual districts.

Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, told journalists yesterday that the changes are meant to strengthen the unity of the country in the face of terrorists who seek to weaken the bond between Russia's rulers and its people.

The Kremlin also argues that by making governors directly accountable to the president, corrupt local officials who have in the past run their regions as their own personal fiefdoms will be cast aside.

Although the measure is expected to be approved by the Duma, where the pro-Kremlin United Russia faction holds a two-thirds majority, there have been some sharply critical voices in the legislature.

They warn that the proposed shakeup of Russia's political system is unconstitutional -- making a mockery of the country's federative status -- and will only further official corruption, erasing most of the democratic gains made since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Former presidential candidate and current Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev told RFE/RL why he opposes the bill: "This bill clearly violates the constitutional principle of a federative state, it clearly violates the democratic principle of being able to elect our regional leaders, it will lead to a rise in non-accountability and corruption if it is passed. It needs to be widely discussed within Russia's regions [before it is voted on]."

In practical terms, the Kremlin proposal would have the president nominate a gubernatorial candidate for consideration by the regional legislature. If regional deputies rejected the candidate, the president could re-nominate the same person or choose another nominee. If the legislature again rejected his or her candidacy, Putin could appoint anyone as acting governor and dissolve the local legislature.

Current laws limit Russia's elected governors to a maximum of two five-year terms. But the Kremlin bill does not mention term limits, which could lead to governors being appointed more or less for life, with no popular accountability.

In the Russian context, said another critic of the bill, Duma Deputy Nikolai Ryzhkov, that is a recipe for a corrupt dictatorship: "What will people in the region get out of this? They will have their right to elect a governor crudely taken away. They will get "satraps" (petty tyrants) with limitless terms who can steal and rule for a limitless term. They will lose their last opportunity to have any influence and these satraps, as Kremlin representatives have been saying, will get the right to coordinate federal bodies on the territory of their regions. The result is absolute power -- and therefore absolutely corrupt power -- that is controlled by no one and which will use the local police and prosecutor's office to help it do its dirty deeds. This is what the Russian people will get as a result of this 'wonderful' reform."

Deputy Chief of Staff Surkov, in his comments yesterday, acknowledged that the proposed system would not be perfect. But he rejected the charge that it would bury democracy in the country, saying all democracies differed and that Russia had no need to follow a particular model.

To Glazev, who used to be a Communist himself, the proposal is a throwback to Soviet days when regional party bosses ruled on behalf of the Kremlin and enriched themselves through corruption in the process.

Glazev said that if Putin and his aides really aim to strengthen the country in the face of terrorism, they should reverse course: "A strong government gets its strength from the people, from self-government. In order to make the government healthier, to clear it of corruption, it is essential to introduce a mechanism of public control. It is essential to make the government transparent, responsible and understandable. Clear guidelines defining its powers must be introduced. Other than elections, mankind has not invented any other mechanism to get incompetent and irresponsible people out of government, because the people are the most objective judge of the government. If the government rejects this judge, it becomes unaccountable."

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