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2004 And Beyond: In Russia, Tragedy Furthers Kremlin Vision Of Centralized State

Putin said the political reforms would help ensure the country's security The year 2004 will long be associated with two major events in Russia -- the Beslan hostage tragedy and the launch of sweeping reforms aimed at consolidating power in the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the reforms just days after the bloody end of the siege in Beslan, vowing that a stronger state would protect Russians from the scourge of terrorism. But are Beslan and Putin's reforms really related? And how will the events of 2004 shape the year ahead? RFE/RL reports that terrorism has helped set the stage for what some critics say will be a crushing blow for democracy in Russia.

Prague, 15 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For Russia, 2004 was a violent year.

"I feel terrible," says the brother of one Beslan victim among a group of mourners. "I had a sister here who died. My other sister is in hospital. What can I feel? Do you hear the people crying? That's how I feel."

"Psychological fear should not turn our life into one of constant fear for the lives of our children, and of course for our own lives," adds the mother of a Beslan student. "I hope our leaders, our government, will try to ensure their safety."

In Moscow, 14 people were killed when terrorists targeted the metro not once, but twice.

More than 90 people -- mainly police and other law-enforcement officials -- were killed during a militant raid in Russia's North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia.
With the country reeling from the Beslan tragedy, Putin wasted no time in launching radical political reforms aimed at tightening the "power vertical," or centralized control.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow president, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was assassinated when an explosive device was detonated during a tightly guarded public rally in Grozny.

Two Russian airliners exploded in midair within minutes of each other in what appeared to be a coordinated attack. Some 90 people were killed. Traces of the explosive hexagen were later found in the wreckage of both planes.

But nothing compared to the horror of Beslan.

Armed militants stormed a school in the North Ossetian town on 1 September, taking hostage hundreds of children, parents and teachers gathered for first-day ceremonies.

On the third day of the siege, Russian forces stormed the building. A chaotic firefight ensued. In the end, some 320 people were dead -- more than half of them children.

With the country reeling from the tragedy, Putin wasted no time in launching radical political reforms aimed at tightening the "power vertical," or centralized control.

Such a step, Putin said, was the best way to ensure Russia's future security.

"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.

The move immediately drew accusations that the Kremlin was using the tragedy to boost Putin's power.

Yevgenia Albats, a professor of political science at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a critic of the current government, said the reforms had nothing to do with Beslan -- and everything to do with the Kremlin's desire "to reinstate full control over society."

"I believe that each and every political reform that has been announced during the past months had nothing, and has nothing, to do with Beslan," she said. "Beslan served as a pretext. The Kremlin just capitalized on the fear and anger which developed inside Russian society after the hostage crisis in Beslan and decided to use the time after the crisis to announce its reforms."

Two of the most ambitious proposals concern the regional governments and the lower house of parliament, or Duma.

The Kremlin wants to abolish the election of Duma deputies in single-mandate districts and move exclusively to a proportional party system. Critics say the bill -- submitted to the Duma in December -- will effectively remove all remaining opposition voices from a parliament that is already overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin.

But the bill that has sparked the most concern has already been signed into law. It eliminates the direct election of Russia's 89 regional leaders and institutes a system of presidential appointment. Regional legislatures have the right to reject a candidate, but at their own peril: After two rejections, the president can dissolve the body and confirm his governor's appointment.

Liberal groups and constitutional experts say the measure is a giant step back from the democracy-building gains of the 1990s.

Albats said the new law will eliminate any need for dialogue between a governor and his public -- and strike a blow to regional business as well.

"At least once in four years, those governors, those elected officials, were [in the past] forced to recall that there were people living in their regions, and that they had to do something for them," Albats said. "Those elected leaders in the regions, they [also] had an interest in businesses and developing businesses -- one, because those businesses paid taxes in their regions, and second, because those businesses provided them with the funds for the election campaigns every four years."

Centralizing tendencies could also be seen elsewhere. The Kremlin this year continued its offensive on private oil giant Yukos.

The Kremlin is now set to auction off Yukos's largest production subsidiary. The likely winner? Gazprom, the government-run natural gas major. By the end of the year, the state could control 20 percent of the country's oil exports.

Some observers say the Yukos dismemberment heralds the start of a re-nationalization drive that will gradually put all of the country's resources back in the Kremlin's portfolio.

But others defend the move as the best response to a decade of lawless capitalism that saw the rise of so-called oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the former Yukos head in jail for over a year on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

"The Russian government, and also Russian society, is caught in the trap of oligarchic capitalism, which is neither wanted nor needed," said Vitalii Tretyakov, a conservative columnist with the "Rossiiskaya gazeta" newspaper. "Oligarchic capitalism puts civil freedoms, the democratic process, and independent courts under its control -- it just gathers everything into its hands. How do you get out of that? The only way that the current Russian government and society know of getting out of the grasp of oligarchic capitalism is through strengthening the central government."

Still, said Tretyakov, the year ahead will be a troubled time for Russia -- a period of what he calls "ideological uncertainty" about the proper roles of government and civil society.

Albats is more direct, saying 2005 could see unrest as the consequences of Putin's political reforms become more apparent.

She said she believes the regime -- despite its claims of strength -- is actually quite unstable.

If not for record-high oil prices, Albats added, "Russia would be a failed state."

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