Following broad criticism that President Vladimir Putin is exploiting the Beslan school massacre to enhance his powers, the Kremlin on Thursday mobilized a number of surrogates, including former president Boris Yeltsin, to rebut charges that proposed political changes would undermine Russian democracy.
"The authorities must act in a tough and speedy manner" to meet "the bloody challenges thrown at us by the new enemy," Yeltsin said in a rare interview Thursday with the paper Moscow News. "But at the same time, I firmly believe that the measures that the country's leadership will undertake after Beslan will lie within the framework of the democratic freedoms that have become some of Russia's most valuable achievements over the last decade."
Under his plan, Putin would abolish the election of governors in Russia's 89 regions and instead appoint them himself to create what he calls a "single chain of command." He also proposed ending the election of parliament members from individual constituencies and having Russians vote for political parties, which would decide who sits in parliament.
Also on Thursday, a key Putin adviser on Chechnya defended the government's tactics during the school siege and said Putin had been prepared to release as many as 30 jailed Chechen and other guerrillas to secure the safety of the Beslan hostages. In the past, Putin has repeatedly rebuffed any suggestion of negotiation with Chechen fighters.
"The president was prepared to free them," said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, adding that the Kremlin was debating the ratio of prisoners to hostages it would accept when explosions and gunfire swept the school, killing 338 people by official count, nearly half of them children. Aslakhanov said he had met with Putin on the second day of the crisis and was preparing to enter the school to talk to the hostage takers when an accidental explosion triggered the massacre.
At a news conference in Moscow, Aslakhanov said that in three phone calls with the hostage takers, he had tried to impress on them that their demand that the Russian army leave Chechnya in two days was unacceptable and logistically impossible but that the Kremlin was willing to free guerrillas involved in a June assault in Ingushetia that killed about 90 people.
Aslakhanov also said the government had had no immediate plans to storm the school when violence erupted Sept. 3, although it had been evaluating all options, including persuading Chechens previously spurned by the Kremlin to act as negotiators.
The speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, said Thursday that the elected body would begin its own investigation of the Beslan crisis. Putin at first ruled out an inquiry and then agreed to one by the nonelected Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. The announcement of a second inquiry was another sign that the government is anxious about addressing public resentment over its handling of the crisis.
Four political analysts with close ties to the Kremlin argued at a news conference that Putin's plan would foster democracy by speeding modernization and galvanizing popular participation in politics through a new body, the Public Chamber, which would draw members from trade unions, nongovernmental organizations and other grass-roots groups.
"This is a gesture that has been pulled out in response to the criticism," Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a separate interview. "If you want to galvanize public opinion, why do you need a new institution when you have a parliament?"
At the news conference, some of the analysts noted what they called democratic failings in the United States and European Union. "We are not going to pass exams set by European and American teachers," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Research. "Look at George Bush. An archaic political system has allowed a man who received less votes than his opponent to become the president of the United States."
Putin's plan has "been discussed for a long time by the expert community," said Konstantin Simonov, head of the Center for the Analysis of the Russian Political Situation. "The growing terrorist threat hasn't changed the country's agenda but proved that the course toward the resolute reorganization of the state is right."