Wed, Sep 15, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Putin cites terror in new power play

BESLAN RESPONSE The Russian president changed the Constitution in a move that critics said would increase his grip on power but have no effect on terror campaigns

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

Russian President Vladimir Putin made constitutional changes on Monday designed to increase his personal control of the regions and parliament, saying the government needed "strengthening" because it had failed at Beslan in its fight against terrorism.

He told regional governors, Cabinet colleagues and senior bureaucrats: "We have not achieved visible results in rooting out terrorism and in destroying its sources.

"The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the break-up of Russia."

But some analysts said his changes, which amounted to the biggest single shakeup of his four years in power, would not help fight terrorism, but further strengthen his already tight grip on power.

Putin said he wanted to appoint the currently elected regional governors himself, subject to vetting by the weak regional assemblies, and he wanted all members of parliament elected by proportional representation.

At present half the Duma, the lower house of the federal parliament, is directly elected by constituencies, the rest according to the party vote. The new system could in theory give smaller parties seats in in parliament, but the current rules let only parties with more than 7 percent of the vote take seats, disqualifying most.

Putin made two other announcements of more apparent relevance to the Beslan disaster.

He made his head of administration, Dmitri Kozak, his personal envoy to the North Caucuses region, which includes North Ossetia and Chechnya, and appointed Vladimir Yakovlev as minister for reconstructed nationalities, a post designed to ease ethnic tension in the south which he abolished when be became president.

Putin hinted at plans for a Russian version of the US Department of Homeland Security, established after Sept. 11, saying: "We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad."

In a rare mention of the social causes of terrorism, he hinted at the huge amount of unemployment and poor health of the North Caucuses.

He said terrorism's roots lay in "unemployment, in insufficiently effective socio-economic policy, and in insufficient education ... The district's unemployment rate is several times higher than Russia's average ... All of this provides fertile soil for extremism to grow."

Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment, said the changes were the "logical extension" of Putin's desire to have vertical control of the regions.

"The Constitution still says that the Russian people are the source of power, but [now] there is nothing left in the Constitution to that effect," Shevtsova said.

The changes would not make him a dictator, however, since he valued his invitations to the Group of Eight industrialized countries, and Russian authorities were too corrupt to be authoritarian.

Vladimir Pribyovsky, head of the think tank Panorama, said: "Terrorism is being used as a pretext to change the federal structure of the country."

He said that the planned change to the Constitution might lead to Putin trying to alter the Constitution to allow himself a third term at the elections in 2008.

Before re-election in March, Putin ruled out constitutional change.

Also See Story:

Covering the Beslan hostage drama an exercise in frustration

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