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Putin Moves to Centralize Authority

Plan Would Restrict Elections in Russia

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 14, 2004; Page A01

MOSCOW, Sept. 13 -- President Vladimir Putin announced plans Monday for a "radically restructured" political system that would bolster his power by ending the popular election of governors and independent lawmakers, moves he portrayed as a response to this month's deadly seizure of a Russian school.

Under his plan, Putin would appoint all governors to create a "single chain of command" and allow Russians to vote only for political parties rather than specific candidates in parliamentary elections. Putin characterized the changes as enhancing national cohesion in the face of a terrorist threat, while critics called them another step toward restoring the tyranny of the state 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Under his plan, Russian President Vladimir Putin would appoint all governors. (Russian Tass Via Reuters)

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"Under current conditions, the system of executive power in the country should not just be adapted to operating in crisis situations, but should be radically restructured in order to strengthen the unity of the country and prevent further crises," Putin said during a televised meeting with cabinet ministers and governors. "Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts seek to bring about a disintegration of the country, to break up the state, to ruin Russia."

His plans must go through parliament, but the Kremlin controls more than two-thirds of the legislature directly and two other political parties quickly endorsed the ideas. Even the governors, who could lose their jobs, surrendered, either welcoming the plans or remaining silent.

"It's the beginning of a constitutional coup d'etat," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a former parliamentary leader from the liberal Yabloko party. "It's a step toward dictatorship."

Mitrokhin and others decried what they saw as the exploitation of the deaths of 328 children and adults in the southern town of Beslan to justify a power grab. "It's sad that the president has used such a topic as a pretext to do that in order to increase his own power," Mitrokhin said in an interview. "These measures don't have anything to do with the fight against terrorism."

The plan was the latest move in a five-year campaign by Putin to consolidate power and neutralize potential opposition in the new Russia. Since coming into office at the end of 1999, Putin's government has taken over or closed all independent national television channels, established unrivaled dominance of both houses of parliament, reasserted control over the country's huge energy industry and jailed or driven into exile business tycoons who defied him.

Putin had already effectively tamed the governors, who often defied the Kremlin under former president Boris Yeltsin. Early in his tenure Putin threw the governors out of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, and set up seven presidential envoys, sometimes called super-governors, to supervise them.

The newest moves take a vision he calls "managed democracy" to a new level. Although governors in Russia's 89 regions have been elected since 1995, Putin's plan would give the president the right to appoint them, subject to confirmation by local legislatures.

At the same time, the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, would consist only of members elected from party lists, meaning that political parties such as Putin's United Russia would exercise exclusive control over everyone who runs for election.

Under the current system, half of the 450 members of the Duma are elected in individual districts like members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The other 225 seats are divided up between parties based on the proportion of the vote they win in balloting by party. If a party wins 25 seats, then the first 25 names on its party list would be entitled to join the Duma.

Only four parties qualified for seats in the party-list half of the Duma in elections in December -- United Russia, the Communists and two nationalist parties allied with the Kremlin, Motherland and the Liberal Democratic Party. Two Western-oriented democratic parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, both fell short of the 5 percent minimum threshold. Therefore, the only members of those parties serving in the current Duma were those elected to individual district seats that would be eliminated under Putin's proposal.

Some parties almost openly sell places on their party lists for Duma elections. A place on a national party list went for about $1 million in the December campaign, according to one party official involved in the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. In the case of Putin's United Russia, the party last year put popular governors at the top of its party lists, then after the election assigned the seats to other candidates.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, one of the few pro-Western independents left in the Duma, called Putin's plan the restoration of "imperial management." In an interview, he added: "Today a very serious mistake has been made. The mistake is a threat to the future of the Russian state."

But most of the political establishment either supported or acquiesced to the Putin plan. Dmitri Rogozin, head of the Motherland party, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democrats, endorsed the changes. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov denounced the measures, but he commands only half the Duma seats his party did when Putin came to power, so he has little ability to oppose them.

Even the governors with the most to lose chose not to resist. The appointive system "existed at the beginning of the '90s . . . and democracy wasn't hurt by that," Gennady Khodyrev, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, said in a telephone interview. Asked if he was prepared to simply give up his office if Putin wanted him to, he said, "Of course I am, and I can explain why: If the president doesn't trust you, then you'll damage the region more than you'll benefit it."

Other supporters argued simply that Russia should return to the days of central power. "The problem is that our country is not ready for democratic elections," said Alexander Rutskoi, a former governor of the Kursk region. "Right now people elect people who speak louder than others and have more money than others."

In his public remarks, Putin offered little explanation for how the changes would defeat terrorism of the sort that visited Beslan earlier this month.

Putin signed a decree Monday giving state agencies two weeks to develop plans to fight terrorism and, during his televised remarks, spoke of creating a single powerful anti-terrorism agency. He talked in general terms about promoting citizen informants, banning extremist groups and prosecuting corrupt police officers. And he offered a vaguely defined plan to create a "Public Chamber" that would oversee security agencies.

Putin also acknowledged that his government had not done enough to tackle the economic roots of terrorism. "In the fight against manifestations of terror we have practically failed to achieve visible results," he said. "We failed to achieve visible results above all in liquidating its sources."

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